Kern—John Rudolph Kern, 78, on March 18, 2018, in Abingdon, Va., where he suffered a heart attack. John was born on January 28, 1940, in Iowa City, Iowa, to Jean and Alexander Kern. His boyhood summers in the forests and fields near his maternal grandparents’ log cabin and at Crestwood, his grandfather’s progressive mixed-race housing cooperative, gave him a love of learning, a love of nature, and a passion for the struggle against injustice.
He graduated from Swarthmore College, where he ran track, played varsity soccer, and volunteered in an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood. His study under Quaker historian Frederick Tolles influenced him to become a Quaker and a historian. In 1962–64, he taught and coached for two years at a boys’ orphanage in Tunisia as one of the first Peace Corps volunteers, meeting and marrying Lanie Chaffee there. After an extended road trip adventure through Asia, he and Lanie returned to the United States and settled in Madison, Wis. He earned a master’s in history, and he and Lanie had a daughter and adopted a son. After their marriage ended, he earned a doctorate, also in history, and taught Black history at Stanislaus State College. In California he met and married Sandra Ann Brill in 1972. After work in Michigan doing historical preservation, in 1984–88 he worked as director of the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.
He and Sandy moved to Roanoke, Va., in 1988 for his work as director of the Salem office of the Department of Historic Resources, and he uncovered a wealth of Southwest Virginia history. Particularly interested in the local history of the Black community, he taught Black history at Hollins University and Central Virginia Community College. In 1997, Sandy suffered a stroke that left her bedridden, and he took loving care of her until her death in 2008.
A member of Roanoke Meeting, for three decades, he was steadfast in his loving care, whether serving on committees, teaching First-day school, keeping vigil at the bedside of a dying Friend, or mowing the meetinghouse lawn.
He retired in 2010. A faithful friend of many of the African refugees who settled in Roanoke, he tutored the children, took the teenagers on hikes and found them summer jobs, and accompanied the adults to court when they had legal troubles. Even in retirement, he continued his research, shining a spotlight on unsung heroes in the Civil Rights Movement. One such hero, the Rev. L. Francis Griffin, was the subject of the paper he delivered just two days before he died. In that paper he described Griffin as a man who “held his life to the principles of human dignity, social justice, and racial equality,” words that can also be said about John.
He was never so happy as when he was roughing it on the trail with his wildflower guidebook in his pocket. He was passionate about backpacking; Bach; LeBron James; opera; Big Ten football; and cheering on his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He loved people; whether they were doctors or hospital orderlies, congressmen or grocery clerks, he met them all with kindness, good humor, and a generous spirit. The Roanoke Public Library Virginia Room, a portion of which was recently named the Dr. John Kern Research Area in his honor, currently houses the Kern collection: over 100 documents that other historians continue to reference and build upon.
John is survived by his children, Margery Zeitouny and Daniel Kern; his stepson, Aaron Schroeder (Tracy); six grandchildren; one great-grandchild; a sister, Antonia Mills; two nieces; and two nephews.
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