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All the world's a stage for UND's first lady

UND's first lady Debbie Kennedy earned her master's degree in fine arts in costume design from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She designed the costumes for the stage production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Debbie Kennedy discusses her role as UND's first lady last week in the president's home on the UND campus. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

UND first lady Debbie Kennedy is no stranger to the Red River Valley.

Though the president's house on the UND campus is a little different than the farm she grew up on outside Hawley, Minn., she said her return to the valley last summer feels like a homecoming after years spent away in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

"It's great to be back," Kennedy said from the family room of her campus residence. "We're happy to be among real people, honest people."

Both Kennedy and her husband—UND President Mark Kennedy, who took office last summer—have agricultural backgrounds and roots in the area. Debbie underlines the latter point by rattling off a list of relatives that Mark, a fellow Minnesotan, has across the state of North Dakota. The two both were involved in 4-H organizations in their youth and were actually brought together 36 years ago when both their clubs were attending the Minnesota State Fair.

A first

Despite a history on the east side of the Red River, Kennedy has a personal background in North Dakota higher education. She lightly plays down her alma mater of North Dakota State University, the chief rival of her new school. Still, as a first-generation college student, Kennedy says her university years were "a big deal."

"There's a lot of students at UND who are the first in their families to go to college, so I can understand what it's like to make a big step," Kennedy said. "When you move off into the dormitory for the first time, it's a big move."

As an undergraduate, she earned a double major in home economics and textile and clothing, choices she pursued due to a love of sewing and an interest in the way people dress. Four years ago, after the couple's four adult children were off on their own, she pursued that interest even further by earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in production design and costume design from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The degree primarily focused on theater and dance costumes with a little bit of lighting and set design, she said. Away from the stage, Kennedy also gained an introduction to museum design.

Building character

When discussing her studies, she points to her longstanding fascination in the clothes people choose to wear.

"I don't think people understand that costumes on stage create the character, but the clothes you wear every day do the same—from stage to street from fantasy to reality," she said.

The draw of that principle helped bring her back into higher education, but her given reason for the return is more simple than that.

"My objective in school was to become computer-literate," she said of her time at George Washington. "At my age, I was over the shoulders of 20-year-olds asking, 'What did you click on?'"

It was a fast-paced learning experience, an environment in which Kennedy had fun. As an "older-than-average student," she had the opportunity to complete internships and work in shows put on by the professional theater community of Washington, D.C., as opposed to more collegiate productions.

At the moment, her costumes are appearing on stage there in a production called "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," a takeoff from the classic 1946 film.

Kennedy said she designed the costumes for last year's run of performances. With another year of production, the costumes are making their return to the stage.

More locally, Kennedy is beginning the costume design process for a series of summertime Shakespeare productions to begin this June in Grand Forks. She also brought her skills back to a higher education setting by serving on the university committee tasked with putting together new academic regalia to be used in commencement and other formal ceremonies.

School colors

Kennedy said the products of that committee drew from the school's colors, a subject she references as she points out the green jacket she's wearing. She said green is the main hue of the regalia, but there are still "little touches of pink in there" as well. Kennedy takes pride in the story behind the inclusion of pink among UND's school colors.

"Of our first eight graduates, six of them were women," she said. "It took 100 years or more later before some East Coast universities even accepted women, so we were on the cutting edge of women doing what they wanted to do."

The story of the UND pink, Kennedy said, is attributed to those early female graduates.

"They got to choose the colors of the school, so they chose green for the prairie grasses and pink for the prairie rose flower," she said.

Despite her proximity to the stage in the dramatic side of her design, Kennedy herself has no interest in performing.

"That's why Mark's on the podium, not me," she said with a laugh.

Kennedy views her role as first lady through the lens of a hostess. So far, the job has included plenty of meeting and greeting. Whether that's engaging faculty, staff and students on campus or visiting communities throughout North Dakota, Kennedy said she's having a good time connecting with university stakeholders.

"Having grown up in the valley, I know this area," she said. "We've been meeting really wonderful people and hearing their connections to UND, whether they're alumni, or their kids went here or they've heard stories of grandparents going to school here and representing some of our early graduates."

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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