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>  News Releases >   2003 >   January

Jean Alexander Kemeny(1930 - 2003)

Posted 01/24/03


Jean Alexander Kemeny

Jean Alexander Kemeny - beloved widow of Dartmouth's 13th President John G. Kemeny, celebrated author of fiction and nonfiction books, and vivacious role model for generations of women at Dartmouth – died peacefully in her hilltop, Etna, NH, home on Wednesday evening, January 22nd. Her passing followed prolonged complications from cancer; she was 72 years old.

Born in 1930, the older daughter of Robert and Laura Alexander from Burlington, VT, Jean grew up on the rocky coast of Maine. She became the first student from Cape Elizabeth High School to attend Smith College. And it was during her freshman year that she met her future husband while attending a World Federalist Conference at Princeton, where he was a graduate of the mathematics program and a philosophy professor; they were married in 1950. Four years later, they moved to Hanover, NH, where Dr. Kemeny came to teach and rebuild Dartmouth's Mathematics Department. Together, they built remarkable, life-long careers at the College that have spanned 50 years.

During the first two decades, while Dr. Kemeny taught his courses, founded a world-class math department, wrote his books and transformed the development of computers, Mrs. Kemeny raised their two children, led political/civic/educational programs within the community, acted and sang in various local productions, and advised and supported her husband in ways once described as "holistically beneficial" to themselves and every one beyond them.

In 1970, Dr. Kemeny was named president of Dartmouth College and Mrs. Kemeny found herself thrust into a new role for which there was no official recognition or even a job description. So, in her typical can-do fashion, the once shy and self-conscious small town girl created a role for herself that proved as revolutionary as the times in which she lived. A gracious and creative hostess who made an indelible impression on luminaries from Albert Einstein to President Jimmy Carter, Mrs. Kemeny also rose to prominence as an outspoken activist for civil and women's rights and in support of Dartmouth's conversion to coeducation, which came into being during the Kemeny Administration. A consummate "people person," she was a loyal and generous friend whether they were campus Building and Grounds workers or Nobel Prize winners; a sensitive politician, enthusiastic fund raiser and colorful ambassador of Alumni Relations, she aided Dartmouth in countless ways and was adopted as an honorary member of "the Great Class of '53," which she considered one of her fondest memories.

Describing his wife's contributions to his presidency, Dr. Kemeny once said, "When I say that I could not have done this job without the help and support of my wife, I am making a simple, factual statement. Her contributions to the welfare of the College and its president have been manifold. Often they have been achieved at great personal sacrifice. The thirteenth presidency has been a two-person team effort."

In her 1979 autobiographical book, It's Different at Dartmouth, Jean Kemeny chronicled the decade she spent as "First Lady" of Dartmouth College. In one reflective moment toward its end, she wrote – with characteristic humor, candor, irony and humility:

"Uneducated and ignorant, I founded a new school in 1970 – a school for one presidential wife. I wrote the primers, devised the curriculum and taught the courses to myself. I determined what questions to ask, and mastered some of the answers. This book is my thesis, written under an adviser – me. When I graduate, it may not be with honors, but my grade should be more than a gentlewomanly C+."

Current Dartmouth president Jim Wright and his wife Susan have been close friends of the Kemenys for 30 years. And last week, as they paid their respects at her bedside, President Wright was able to compliment her, "It is 'Different at Dartmouth,' and you have played a large part in making it so." Wright commented that her spirit enlivened the entire College; "May that same spirit live on at the heart of the Dartmouth Community for generations to come," he said.

Mrs. Kemeny's husband died in 1992. She is survived by her daughter, Jennifer, of Etna, NH; son, Rob, of Midlothian, VA; her four grandsons and sister Judy. A memorial service and celebration of her life will be held in Rollins Chapel on the Dartmouth campus at 3:00 pm on February 4th. Donations can be made to the John & Jean Kemeny Scholarship and/or the Jean Kemeny Scholarship funds.

Memorial Infomation

A memorial service and celebration of her life will be held in Rollins Chapel on the Dartmouth campus at 3:00 pm on February 4th. Donations can be made to the John & Jean Kemeny Scholarship and/or the Jean Kemeny Scholarship funds.

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