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From out of rubble, a scientist

Barry McNamara
11/01/2010
The newest inductee into Monmouth College’s Hall of Achievement is connected to at least three U.S. presidents.

Dr. Kennedy Reed ’67 shares the name of a famous president (more on that below), and his most recent connection made him a clear choice to receive the highest honor that Monmouth College bestows upon its graduates. Reed, a theoretical physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was named by President Obama in 2009 as a recipient of the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Engineering Mentoring.

Some aspects of Reed’s youth might call to mind another president, Abraham Lincoln, although Reed lived an urban version of Honest Abe’s log cabin story.

When he was two years old, Reed’s family moved from Memphis, Tenn., to Chicago, and eventually settled in the Ida B. Wells housing project on the south side of the city. Although he attended school, Reed’s experience with self-education had some similarities to Lincoln’s.

Reed traces his interest in science back to a time when the city began tearing down some of the slum dwellings that surrounded the projects in order to build new high-rise housing projects. He and his friends played in the rubble, making forts and throwing dirt balls and rocks at each other.

“We started noticing that some of the rocks dug up for the new construction were really pretty or very interesting, and we started collecting them,” Reed said.

He became interested in chemistry because it was useful for identifying the rocks and learning what they were made of and, as his interest grew, he began building a laboratory in his room, using lunch money to buy chemicals and equipment. His mother encouraged his interest in science and was tolerant of his experiments, even though they sometimes filled the apartment with unpleasant smells or shook the buildings with loud explosions.

Looking back, I realize that I was very lucky,” said Reed. “I’m terrified now when I think about the danger of some of the things I did back then.”

Reed’s interest in geology led to an interest in astronomy, and he saved enough money to buy a small telescope. He remembers being out with his telescope in pre-dawn hours during the winter.

“That’s when the sky seemed most clear for viewing,” he said.

Reed also spent a lot of time in the public libraries and in school libraries, “reading anything I could find about geology, chemistry and astronomy, and about physics, which I became interested in while studying astronomy.”

Reed attended Chicago’s Tilden Technical High School, which was oriented to science and engineering, and it was there that he first learned about Monmouth.

“A school counselor got word of a scholarship competition there, and he arranged for me and another student to go to Monmouth and take the scholarship tests.”

Reed won one of the six scholarships, which entitled him to full tuition at Monmouth. Asked what he thought of the campus when he first arrived to compete for the scholarship, Reed replied, “I had two impressions. One was that Monmouth was very different from the urban area where I lived. That was very attractive – to be able to be outside and see grass and trees, not just cement. Also, I was impressed by some of the professors we met. I remember Dr. (Garrett) Thiessen, and I also remember a biology professor (John Kettering) spoke to the group that day. They both seemed so learned and scholarly, and I remember thinking that I would like to go to a school like that.”

Because he had learned so much on his own, Reed tested out of freshman-level chemistry. That would prove to be chemistry’s loss and physics’ gain.

“I was in upper level chemistry classes right away, but I wasn’t ready for them, discipline-wise,” he said.

He later switches his major to physics, and he also appreciated other academic opportunities at Monmouth.

“I really enjoyed my liberal arts classes, too” said Reed, who was also involved in classical piano. “The courses in history, English and philosophy were very appealing to me. And I enjoyed the monthly convocations. They brought in wonderful speakers. It was a real education.”

There were also memorable moments outside the classroom – none of them more important to Reed than a chance encounter in the cafeteria.

“I was behind her in line one day,” he said of Jane Hensleigh Reed ’69, his wife of 43 years.

Jane remembers the meeting, too.

“I was very aware of Kennedy at that time,” she said. “I knew he was standing behind me, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to say something to him.’”

She eventually turned and asked him a question related to an art project she was working on and – in keeping with the liberal arts theme – you could either say “the rest was history” or “they had good chemistry.”

Jane completed her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Illinois-Chicago, then earned her master’s degree and taught high school physics and chemistry. The Reeds now have two adult children.

A simple cafeteria encounter turned into a major moment in Reed’s life, and so did a simple trip to the barbershop in town. It’s not a proud moment in the city’s history, but Reed was refused service when he tried to get his hair cut in Monmouth.

“I didn’t have a car, and I couldn’t drive anyway, so it was very difficult for me to get to Galesburg where there was a black barber,” he explained.

College and city officials became involved, and Reed recalls a public meeting in which he sat at a table facing five or six barbers. Local media reported on the issue, and the national press soon picked up the story. Eventually, one of the barbers, who was an ex-convict, agreed to cut Reed’s hair.

“It was never my intention to be an activist,” said Reed. “All I wanted was a haircut.”

Reed also recalled that a few students told him that on Nov. 22, 1963, when they first heard that “Kennedy” had been shot, they had feared it was Reed who had been fired upon because of the barbershop controversy.

If you do the math, you’ll realize that Reed was not named for JFK. He was, however, named for the president’s father.

“I was the first baby born in a hospital in Memphis that had been funded by Joseph Kennedy,” he explained. “I’ve been told that the nurses convinced my mothers that ‘Kennedy’ would be a good name for me.”

After earning a Ph.D in theoretical physics at the University of Nebraska, Reed joined the physics faculty at Morehouse College, a four-year liberal arts college in Atlanta. He later became connected with a group at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) that was engaged in research closely related to his Ph.D. thesis. He took a leave of absence from his faculty position to work at LLNL, and it worked out that he has been there ever since.

While continuing his research, Reed now has administrative responsibilities. He serves on a number of panels and committees for agencies, such as the National Academy of Science, the National Science Foundation and the American Physical Society. He also works with international scientific organizations, helping to promote physics programs at universities in Africa and set up exchange programs between African and U.S. universities.

Reed also speaks at universities and colleges in the U.S. While visiting Monmouth during Homecoming week, he presented a lecture in the physics department on his research involving atomic collisions in high temperature plasmas and another talk for all science students titled “Physics in Africa.”

Reed has been a leading advocate for increasing opportunities for minority students and professionals in the sciences and has create several national programs, including the National Physical Science Consortium. His work to encourage minority students in science disciplines and his international scientific activities have led to high-level recognition, such as the Presidential Award and the American Physics Society’s John Wheatley Award.

Of course, the accolades are not why he does it.

“Part of my job description now includes working with some of the programs I’ve developed,” he said. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘enjoy.’ It’s bigger than that. It’s meaningful.”

His work has taken him to about a dozen countries in Africa, and to nearly as many nations in Europe and Asia.

“A wide variety of interesting and unexpected things have happened to me through my work,” he said. “I got to go to the White House and meet the president. I had no idea that I would be doing some of these things.”

Reed said that his life has had many flukes that led to unexpected pathways.

Whether that fluke was a pile of rocks that led to a distinguished career in science, or a trip to the cafeteria that led to a 43-year marriage and counting, Reed’s pathway has not only seen great personal success, but has also helped hundreds of young men and women to have successful pathways of their own.