Conservative Raleigh philanthropist, author KD Kennedy dies

Kenneth Durwood (KD) Kennedy, a well known Raleigh businessman and philanthropist who donated millions to higher education, the arts and conservative causes died on Friday May 17. He was 82.

Kennedy was a well-respected business leader in North Carolina, serving as CEO of Electric Supply Company of Raleigh, one of the southeast’s largest suppliers of electric equipment.

A native of Wilson, Kennedy earned his bachelor of science degree in electric engineering from Duke University before earning his master of science in electric engineering from North Carolina State University.

Kennedy also attended one summer school session at ACC/Barton College, which provided himself with an appreciation for the benefits of a small, private, liberal arts college.

His success is business allowed Kennedy to donate generously to various causes including Duke University, Barton College, various fine arts programs, and the North Carolina Republican Party.

In 2011, Duke University named its indoor football field  for KD and his wife Sara Lynn.

“Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy have been strong supporters of the Duke football program,” said Duke University President Richard H. Brodhead at the time. “Duke is delighted to honor them in this facility, which will also be used by the many students at Duke who enjoy club sports and intramurals.”

Following in the footsteps of his late father, KD Kennedy Sr., Kennedy was a longtime trustee of the college and served five years as chair of the board. Upon his retirement from the board, Kennedy was elected a trustee emeritus.

Kennedy was also honored by Barton in 2008 with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

As chair of the “Campaign for Barton – Enriching the Tradition” in the 1990s, he set the tone for giving, with his own multi-million-dollar gift. Kennedy’s family was honored with the naming of the Kennedy Recreation and Intramural Center (KRIC) in 1997 and as part of that campaign, he and his wife, Sara Lynn, made a significant contribution for the construction of the Bruce W. Riley Plaza.

In addition, Kennedy endowed the Sara Lynn Riley Kennedy Music Recording Studio on campus and established the Dorothy and KD Kennedy Endowed Chair of Business in the Barton College School of Business.

Kennedy was also diligent in raising awareness for the $21 million Centennial Campaign for Barton College and the College’s Black Box Theatre Campaign effort, with a naming gift for the Kennedy Family Theatre.

Among the most recent gifts to the college were the establishment of the KD Kennedy Jr. Rare Book Room in the Willis N. Hackey Library in September of 2014 and a one million lead gift to Barton from Electric Supply Company and the Kennedy family for the naming of Electric Supply Company Field (a multi purpose synthetic turf field located at Truist Stadium) in May of 2019.

An accomplished actor and poet who was honored with the City of Raleigh’s highest award in arts, the Medal of Arts, Kennedy was chairman of the North Carolina Theatre and chairman of the BTI (now Martin Marietta Center) Planning and Development Committee. To honor his commitment to the arts, the experimental theater in the center is named after Kennedy and his family.  KD was central to the massive renovation of the then-named Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, which overhauled the main 2,300 seat performance space and added a new home to the North Carolina Symphony, a 600-seat theatre and the Kennedy Black Box performance space.

Former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer said it was KD Kennedy’s drive that delivered some of the finest performing arts spaces in America for Raleigh.

“For years the arts community had suggested several new performing arts spaces, but the funds and land were not available,” said Fetzer. “Instead we proposed a full renovation of Memorial Auditorium along with the added spaces adjacent. KD was the driving force behind the public-private partnership. He donated his own money and raised even more. He wanted and delivered a crown jewel for Raleigh and eastern North Carolina. It would not have happened without him.”

“KD was a force in the world and a large force in the arts world,” said North Carolina Theatre founder De Ann Jones. “There would never have been a North Carolina Theatre and all the opportunities that came with it for young artists without KD.”

Kennedy, and his wife, Sara Lynn Riley Kennedy, have four grown children (Ken III, Katherine, Lauren and Michael).

Lauren Kennedy is a well known Broadway actress and is currently the executive director of Theatre Raleigh.

Kennedy was inducted into the North Carolina Republican Party Hall of Fame and served for many years on the State Central Committee and served as the party’s finance chair.  

In addition, Kennedy was an avid writer and poet, and is well-versed in Robert Burns’ life and writings. Kennedy’s books include “Our Place in Time” (2002), “Waiting Out in the Yard” (2006), “For Rhyme or Reason” (2012), and “Progenitors” (2014).

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