Kemp Mabry always helped organize Bulloch County’s annual Memorial Day program. Even though he passed away in March, Kemp helped put together much of Monday’s event. Over the Memorial Day weekend, certain memories stand out in my mind from the years when Kemp and I worked together on programs for the Center for Irish Studies at Georgia Southern University.
Early on, I discovered that being Kemp’s friend meant I had also become a friend of his friends, even those I had not yet met. It was as if Kemp had given me a passport into that community of friendship which surrounded him. This benefit proved valuable to the center on numerous occasions.
So when my wife Donna and I, representing the center, went to the Atlanta Celtic Festival, Augusta’s “Evening in Ireland” festivities or the Savannah Irish Festival, we knew some people we met for the first time were sure to become friends of the center simply because they also were Kemp’s friends.
I recall Kemp’s tireless support for the center as a member of its advisory board: his generous contributions to the funding of the Irish Studies programs, the gift of his books for the university’s Irish Studies collection and the gift of his time. I think he missed an Irish event only when a schedule conflict made attendance impossible. Although a master at multi-tasking, even Kemp had to concede, with his crowded schedules, that he could be in just one place at a time.
Kemp loved Irish Pub Nights, and looked forward to hearing Harry O’Donoghue or Tom O’Carroll bring to life onstage the music and humor of the Irish. Tom O’Carroll’s haunting performance of “The Lonesome Boatman” on the tin whistle became a favorite of his, and a recording of that song was played at the beginning of Kemp’s funeral service.
But my favorite memory of Kemp goes back to an event the center organized 10 years ago and presented on March 8, 1997. The year 1997 was important in the Irish community because it marked the 150th anniversary of the worst year, 1847, of the Great Irish Famine. Throughout the country universities with Irish Studies were acknowledging this anniversary in special activities concerning the famine.
A tree-planting ceremony near the Builder's of the University Terrace at Georgia Southern was followed by a program opening the Georgia Southern museum exhibit “Out of Ireland,” arranged by Dr. Del Presley on the Irish emigration experience. Kemp helped plant the oak tree and was one of two main speakers at the exhibit
At the tree-planting ceremony, Dr. Paul Jurgensen, M.D., representing the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Savannah, spoke of how the Irish Oak would stand as a tribute to the living heritage of Ireland brought to southeast Georgia by the Irish immigrants who settled here.
Thomas Mahoney, Jr., Esq., former grand marshal of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade, also spoke
All three speakers were impressive. But I am now thinking particularly of Kemp, who was on this occasion the best I ever heard him.
Kemp had a large map showing the movement of Scots-Irish immigrants down the Appalachians. Among these settlers were some of his ancestors, who ultimately made their way to Georgia. As his narrative disclosed the facts and anecdotes of his story, we saw the many-faceted Kemp on full display: historian, entertainer, genealogist, humorist, teacher, man of faith.
Kemp closed his talk with these words: “Together we can offer this universal Irish prayer: ‘May your neighbors respect you, troubles neglect you, the angels protect you and heaven accept you.’”
In that Irish prayer I see the essence of the spirit of Kemp Mabry, a gentleman of many interests, for whom a life blessed was a life filled with friendships and faith. For me, it is the epitaph by which I will always remember him.Dr. Fred Sanders is professor Emeritus of English and director (retired) for The Center for Irish Studies at Georgia Southern University.