Sudden conversion puts Dan Kennedy on a lifelong path to protect life from conception to death
On what seemed like an ordinary morning in 1980, Dan Kennedy looked in the mirror to shave. What he saw startled him: Two Dan Kennedys were staring back. He rushed to an eye doctor, and was relieved to learn the condition was temporary, a mere blip in his health.
But leaving the doctor’s office that day in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Kennedy noticed people gathered at the building next door, holding signs calling for an end to abortion. Without thinking, the 31-year-old Kennedy joined the group, grabbing a sign that read: “Abortion is the ultimate child abuse.”
“I jumped right in,” Kennedy said later, “feeling I was doing something I should do, something I was meant to do.”
It was a dramatic reversal from his reaction when the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion was handed down on January 22, 1973. Hearing the news as he headed to college classes in Michigan that day, “I cheered,” Kennedy recounted years later. At the time, he thought he was doing something good for women. It didn’t cross his mind that anything might be wrong.
So what had changed in those seven years?
By 1980, Kennedy had married and become a Catholic. Though he accepted the church’s teachings on pro-life issues, abortion was still an abstract concept to him — until he stumbled on that abortion clinic “right in my own town.” From that moment, Kennedy was on a path that would stretch over nearly four decades, including 16 years as CEO of Human Life of Washington and now as co-host of Life Talk Northwest on Sacred Heart Radio.
Kennedy knows it isn’t easy being pro-life in Washington state, where nearly 18,000 abortions were performed in 2015, the latest count available. He ticks off the taunts: “You’re not the right kind of person.” “You are a Neanderthal.” “There is no rational basis for what you say you believe.” And if that’s not enough, he points out that “now some are trying to even say pro-life beliefs could qualify as hate.”
Still, “I never looked back,” said Kennedy, now 68, a father of three children and grandfather of two. “You learn so much as you get deeper into the [pro-life] movement — not just about children dying in womb, but also about the mother, the woman.”
Struggling to find answers
The youngest of nine children, Kennedy was born in Big Rapids, Michigan. Family lore says his great-grandfather had a falling out with a priest, so churchgoing just wasn’t part of the Kennedy clan’s life. “I wasn’t religious,” Kennedy said. “In high school, I had gone through Zen Buddhism. It was a crazy time in the culture, and nothing made sense to me, essentially,” he said of the late 1960s and early ’70s.
After high school, Kennedy joined the U.S. Navy. When discharged two years later, he returned to Michigan and enrolled in Davenport College (now University). He studied the existentialists, who looked for authenticity at every turn. That didn’t work. Kennedy tried to make himself believe in God and Christianity: “If you are real, show me. Let me know,” he ordered God.
Instead, Kennedy experienced a profound change of heart.
“I went for a walk, and it was like a light switch went on,” he said of a glorious spring day in March 1978. “All creation was giving praise to God. I had been trying to give it [faith] to myself, but faith is a gift. I was stunned. I felt at home in the universe, and it began to make sense to me.”
Kennedy wasted no time. He was baptized in the Reformed Church in America, based in Grand Rapids. But then he met Lynn, a Catholic woman. One of his co-workers told him, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” so Lynn and Dan took religious education classes together. In September 1979, Kennedy was confirmed in the Catholic Church. He and Lynn were married a month later.
Life Talk Northwest co-hosts Dan Kennedy, right, and Noreen McEntee Hobson interview Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima during the Cornerstone Catholic Conference in October 2017. Photo: Janis Olson
‘Think tank extraordinaire’
Kennedy had volunteered with Right to Life in Michigan, but his involvement with the pro-life movement began to grow when the Kennedys and their young daughter moved to Spokane for his job in 1986. Again he volunteered with the local Human Life affiliate, and shared knowledge of pro-life issues in Gonzaga University radio broadcasts.
He worked with Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, who in 1998 became president of Gonzaga and co-founder of the pro-life organization Healing the Culture; and collaborated with state Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who has worked on legislation that would require parental notification for minors seeking abortions.
Kennedy’s growing list of contacts proved invaluable for the pro-life movement when he moved across the state in 2000 to become CEO of Human Life of Washington, then based in Kirkland.
Just ask Dominican Sister Sharon Park, who recently retired as executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference and lobbied in Olympia on behalf of the state’s bishops. She knew she could rely on Kennedy to delve deep in research. They often coordinated responses before the state Legislature, including against the assisted suicide initiative approved by state voters in November 2008.
“He has a broader view of life than just anti-abortion,” Sister Sharon said. “He knew about poverty, end-of-life and issues of life in between.”
Or ask Esther Hurni-Ripplinger, who replaced Kennedy as executive director of Human Life of Washington in 2016. She is grateful that he still serves on the board of directors and remains “just a phone call away,” happy to answer questions or offer advice, if asked.
Kennedy is a “think tank extraordinaire,” with “a breadth of knowledge that’s equal to his wisdom,” Hurni-Ripplinger said. “When Dan Kennedy speaks, what he says is profound and nothing else needs to be added.”
Prayer and the sacraments
Friends and colleagues attest to Kennedy’s quiet patience, thorough research, steadfastness and tenacity in dealing with pro-life issues as he prepares for the radio show or shares knowledge with organizations such as the WSCC during the legislative session in Olympia.
“I couldn’t possibly do it without prayer and the sacraments,” Kennedy said. Add weekly adoration to that list: At 10 a.m. on any Friday, he slips into the adoration chapel at Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, where he also is a lector at Sunday Mass.
“I do think it is important just the way he perseveres,” said Father Kurt Nagel, Holy Family’s pastor. “He’s the guy who is always there, who comes every week and commits an hour before Jesus and the Blessed Sacrament. We are in an age of not being into commitment, but he is.”
Kennedy also is committed to sharing the pro-life message through the radio show, now in its third year, which he co-hosts with Noreen McEntee Hobson, president of the Washington State March for Life. She has known Kennedy most of her life: Her parents, the late Kathy and Richard McEntee, founded the March for Life of Washington.
Kennedy and Hobson have interviewed national and state pro-life activists, including Abby Johnson, once a clinic director for Planned Parenthood who now helps workers leave the organization; and Valerie Jacobs, who coordinates Project Rachel, the church’s post-abortion healing ministry. They’ve also shared the accomplishments of Students for Life, an effort at changing hearts and minds on campuses.
McEntee Hobson is well grounded in the topics that are central to the pro-life movement, but said she appreciates having a broadcast partner who is “constantly reading and learning, and remarkable in always being on top of the latest news.”
"There is so much conversation to be had," she said. Dan Kennedy is ready.
Those interested in life issues and the public policy priorities of the Catholic Church are encouraged to join the Catholic Advocacy Network. Sign up at votervoice.net/WSCC/home to receive important alerts and easy ways to contact your legislators in Olympia.
Listen to Life Talk Northwest
Sacred Heart Radio's pro-life show, Life Talk Northwest, airs at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and 6 p.m. Saturday on AM 1050 in Seattle and AM 1240 in Olympia.
The show is co-hosted by Dan Kennedy, former CEO of Human Life of Washington, and Noreen McEntee Hobson, president of the Washington State March for Life.
Find archived programs at sacredheartradio.org/project/life-talk-northwest.
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2018
Janet Cleaveland is a member of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver.
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