Anyone who was on the campus of Nebraska Wesleyan any time in the 1960’s, 1970’s, or 1980’s most likely remembers the dapper professor with the thick glasses and the jaunty cap who rode around on his beat-up black bicycle, though they might not know his name or ever have taken any courses from him. On the other hand, since he succeeded in having Intro to Speech Communication become a requirement for all students, a surprising number of students were in his classes, whether or not they majored in Speech and Theater. Dr. Philip Kaye came from Dakota Wesleyan in Mitchell, South Dakota, to Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the summer of 1956. He served as Chair of the Department of Speech and Theater Arts until his retirement in 1990. His younger daughter was three when they came to Nebraska; his younger grandson was three when Dr. Kaye retired. Throughout his life, his family, friends, children, and grandchildren have referred to him as PK, and he doesn’t recall who first gave him the nickname.
As I spoke to PK in preparation for this essay, I was reminded of the first time we met more than twenty five years ago. It was the evening before Thanksgiving, and I had become engaged to his daughter the previous weekend. Needless to say, I was extremely nervous, especially when Nan said nothing to her parents about it all through supper. After supper, we sat on couches in the living room of the parsonage – Nan has carried on the family tradition of being a minister – and after our announcement, PK got out a pad of paper and started asking questions about my family. That did little to ease my nervousness, and it wasn’t until much later that I found out he simply didn’t trust his memory. This time we were among the beautiful antiques in his living room in the retirement center across from Gateway Mall, and I was the one taking notes about his family. I had told him I wanted to know more about his career, so neither of us was nervous. (The apartment is on the fourth floor, and PK loves the opportunity to watch the sky like he did on the South Dakota plains long ago. When they moved to the apartment, they had to get rid of many things, but they’ve kept a wealth of antiques to remind them of their various homes and their ancestry.)
PK was born just a few years after the First World War in Highmore on the plains of central South Dakota. He grew up just a block down the street from the Methodist Church in a house that was built by his grandmother. Church and family were extremely important during his formative years, often without much distinction between the two. His father was church organist and choir director for a thousand years or maybe fifty, as PK puts it, and the entire family was active in the church. PK’s grandfather had come to the Dakota territory as a circuit-riding preacher, had gone back to England to get married, and brought his bride back to Dakota to make their home. They had six children and formed a family of preachers; PK grew up with cousins by the dozens all over the state, most involved in church music. Now, as he squints to see the memories in his mind’s eye, he sees them all gathered together and all singing church music. PK’s daughter Nan, my wife, has told many times about how he carried on the tradition by having the family harmonize to old hymns as they were driving back to South Dakota for holidays or down to Louisiana where his wife called home. Sometimes after they ran through all the many hymns they knew, they switched to drinking songs, although they never mentioned that to PK’s mother who had been president of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Before I met PK, I knew that he was an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church as well as being a teacher; recently, I heard him say that his call into the ministry was more of an unfolding process than a specific event, so I asked him to tell me more about that process. His grandfather had died when PK was a boy, and he knew him only as any boy knows an old person, but the family involvement in church was more than he can imagine having any desire to resist. PK found his friends in church, too. His best friend as he was growing up was the pastor’s son; the pastor was also their Boy Scout leader, so they went together to both church and Scout camps. When PK went to college at Dakota Wesleyan, that same pastor was Dean of the college, and PK became involved in several activities, including the YMCA, the Oxford Club, and the pre-ministerial group. His major was Speech and Theater which he says was “all right for going into ministry.” Others must have agreed. After his senior year, PK was sent to be the pastor of the Methodist Church in Seneca, the next little town north of Highmore, where he was paid ten dollars a week. With his background in Speech, he was able to give pretty good sermons, but he had no training for parish ministry. He says now of the church leaders who sent him to Seneca, “you can’t fault people for being as practical as they need to be.” The country was in the early years of the Second World War, and there was a shortage of ministers. He did go on to seminary at Iliff School of Theology in Denver and then enlisted in the Navy and served as a chaplain, but he says that his Navy chaplaincy wasn’t particularly good, either, because he had so little parish experience. While he was at Iliff, though, he met Hilda Zoe Bruning, and on the way to one of his Navy assignments, he passed through Lake Charles, Louisiana, and eloped with her. This fall, they will celebrate their sixty-ninth wedding anniversary.
Given all of his church involvement, his parish and chaplaincy work, and his seminary degree, I asked PK why he hadn’t continued on his career in the church rather than moving on to a career in academia. That too was a process. In high school and college, debate and speech competitions and theatrical productions had been his primary extra-curricular activities, but Debate in particular gave him the opportunity to meet and compete with stimulating people. Debate helped him to get his ideas straight and present them in compelling fashion, but it was the other Debaters who had the greatest impact. One of his Debate teammates in college was George McGovern, who later was on the History faculty at Dakota Wesleyan, who lived in an apartment across the hall when my wife was born, and who was the Democratic opponent to President Nixon’s re-election bid in 1972. While PK was serving the church in Seneca, Northern State Teacher’s College in Aberdeen – now a university – contacted him to direct the fall play. He had a great time, and it was quite a boost in prestige for a new college graduate to be directing college students not much younger than he was. Although he did go on to seminary, other possibilities lay ahead of him. After he finished his time with the Navy, he was hired to teach Speech and Theater at Dakota Wesleyan. At that time, speech, theater, debate, and speech therapy were usually all part of one department, and he taught all of them, learning a great deal in the process. Throughout his academic tenure, he served as interim or supply pastor in several churches. He remains active in the church, recently serving as Chair of the Administrative Council in the church he and Zodie attended; they began attending there when my wife was the pastor, and their other daughter is past Chair of the Finance Committee.
As PK looks back on his academic career, he feels that he has been quite fortunate. He says, “When I got into teaching, the field was just beginning to change, enrich, and enlarge, so I had the opportunity to teach new things that I hadn’t necessarily taken courses in.” As he taught, he studied and eventually came to know a fair amount about his subjects. If it were possible, he would like to rewrite his Speech textbook… again. He feels that he “could do it much richer now.” I’m certain that it would continue to reflect his interests in General Semantics and in logic and structure as well as his insistence on the importance of paying attention to one’s audience. He also finds the recent research into persuasion to be interesting and would look more into that. Throughout his time at Nebraska Wesleyan, he was active in the state Speech organization and, in addition to serving as its president for a time, received from them an award for excellence in teaching. More important than the professional recognition were the relationships he formed with students and their appreciation for his interest and enthusiasm for his subject and for his students.
PK’s concern with academic rigor has carried on as a family tradition. His wife has a bachelor’s degree. Both of his daughters have master’s degrees, and both of his sons-in-law have Ph.D.’s. All of his grandchildren have bachelor’s degrees; one has a master’s degree, and another is starting graduate school this fall. His concern for the religious life has carried on as well. He officiated at the weddings of both of his daughters and one of his grandsons, and he baptized all of his grandchildren and all but one of his great-grandchildren.
Several years ago, PK gave up his bicycle riding out of concern over the possibility of a bone-breaking accident. Similar forward thinking had led him over the years into handling his income in ways that have made his retirement more comfortable than some. It also led him and Zodie to move into retirement housing before it was forced on them. Retirement hasn’t been entirely a retreat, however. On his eighty-fifth birthday, he stood on his head just to show his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that he could still do it.
[PK’s daughter and my sister-in-law, Margie O’Meara, says there are some minor factual errors in this. However, it is the way I received it from PK. She may be right. You’ve been warned.]