The Forum | Western Civilization

In Memoriam: Kenneth Kolson

March 27, 2020 by Michael B. Poliakoff

With the deepest sadness ACTA mourns the untimely death of our former colleague Dr. Kenneth Kolson on March 23, 2020. In 2016–17, he quite graciously came out of retirement after a long and distinguished career to serve as ACTA’s Vice President of Policy, a task he performed with his characteristic wisdom, kindness, and unfailing cheerfulness: He greatly helped us during an important transitional period in the growth of our agency. His was a remarkable life, full of achievement and service to his community and country.

Dr. Kolson was the deputy director of research at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) from 1985 to 2007 and was detailed as a foreign affairs officer in the U.S. Department of State for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 2007.

He was a teacher and a scholar, whose interests and work spanned a wide array of areas, including urban planning, American history, and political science. After receiving his undergraduate degree in political science from Allegheny College, he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in political science from the University of Kentucky. He then served for 15 years on the faculty of Hiram College and subsequently as a lecturer in the University Honors Program from 1991 to 1999 at the University of Maryland. He also taught urban planning in Finland in 2006 and in Lithuania in 2014 as a Fulbright Scholar.

Among Dr. Kolson’s honors are a John Adams Fellowship at the University of London and an Eccles Fellowship at the British Library. He was also named a fellow in 1992 by the Council for Excellence in Government. During the 1970s and ’80s, Dr. Kolson received grants to research curriculum development from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ohio Program in the Humanities.

Dr. Kolson’s published works include Big Plans: The Allure and Folly of Urban Design, which was published in 2001 by Johns Hopkins University Press and republished in Chinese translation in 2007. He also published numerous other reviews and essays in political science.

These are monuments of a life well-lived, cut short by a tragic fall from which he never fully recovered. He is survived by a devoted family: his wife Jane Kolson, daughter Amanda Kolson Hurley, his son Ted, and grandson Nick. And there are many, many friends who cherish his memory.

It was my good fortune and privilege to know him, beginning in 1991, when I arrived at the National Endowment for the Humanities as a program officer. Like my colleagues, we could always count on him for steady good sense and a reassuring gentleness, even in situations when it was his role to make sure that deadlines were met and workplace rules closely observed. Careful, clear writing was an ethic of the Endowment and, in particular, our unit. When I once noted ruefully how drastically he had edited a document I composed, he smiled and replied, “You need the hide of an armadillo to write at the Endowment.” I believe he enjoyed seeing that tradition had later permeated ACTA. But yet more important was his deep integrity in serving in a federal agency. I know my NEH colleagues will recall how he was willing to take personal risk and to be a whistleblower before the term was popular, in order to preserve scrupulously the honor and integrity of the Endowment. His personal loyalty and devotion to his friends was unwavering. As Guinevere Griest, the former director of our division, and her sister Jeanne aged, Ken became their legal guardian, managing their papers, looking after their needs, and providing friendship and comfort in their advanced old age. 

Even as his health and strength declined, Ken never lost his cheerfulness and gentle good humor. When I last saw him, he was the man I had always known, smiling to see his friends, kind to his caretaker, proud of his children and grandson, and very much at peace with the world.

Virgil had a special place in the Elysian Fields for those whose work had furthered civilization and human flourishing. I know you are there, my dear friend. Thank you for being who you were to all of us.


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