For Jan and Kit Kennedy, giving to Virginia Tech is more than a satisfying way to make a difference: it is a chance for the brothers to cultivate new relationships with faculty and students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment while honoring a legacy of generosity that began with their father, Robert J. Kennedy, five decades ago.

The Kennedy patriarch came to Virginia Tech seeking help for the family tree farm, originally a 400-acre property (now 1,500 acres) in central Virginia where generations of the family have gathered to spend time managing the forests and developing good stewardship practices.

“My father came to Virginia Tech for assistance because it was a land-grant college,” Jan Kennedy said. “At the time, the College of Natural Resources and Environment was a program in the College of Agriculture. My father met with John Hosner, who was in charge of the program and developed a strong friendship with him. The family has been involved with and supported the school ever since.”

From the beginning, the brothers recall, University Distinguished Professor Harold Burkhart has been invaluable in helping their family and their private forester, Bob Warring, a Virginia Tech forestry graduate, manage the planting, thinning, and harvesting of their 29 loblolly plantations. The Kennedys are pleased that data from some of their plantations have been used to verify and calibrate Burkhart’s loblolly pine growth model.

Professor Marcella Kelly met the Kennedy family when she joined Virginia Tech in 2001. “I was just getting into using triggered cameras to ‘capture’ wildlife, and they said, ‘We’d like a survey of animals on our land.’ So we set up cameras, and it was great because they didn’t know they had bears, bobcats, and coyotes on the property. We did an inventory of the animals there, and, thanks to their early investments in our work, we were able to experiment with video monitoring and remote cameras.”

Kelly is still a presence on the Kennedy land today, and the family’s most recent gift to support her research will fund cameras to document how bears behave in the wild.

Assistant Professor Michael Cherry, Kelly’s colleague in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, is conducting a project on white-tailed deer management and has received funding to explore crucial questions about deer population survival rates.

“One challenge to monitoring newborn fawns for survival is that they are going through a period of rapid growth,” Cherry explained. “We use breakaway collars that have a battery pack and a VHF transmitter inside. The collar itself is made of a cotton elastic banding material that has sewn loops that will gradually break away as the animal grows.”

The Kennedy family’s generosity will also support several research projects in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. They are helping to fund forest fire ecology research under the direction of Assistant Professor Adam Coates as well as a project by Assistant Professor David Carter that will utilize lidar remote sensing technology to categorize understory vegetation in intensively managed pine plantations.

The family has been a longtime supporter of the Wood Enterprise Institute, a student-run business venture based in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in which students develop, manufacture, market, and distribute a wood-based product. The Kennedys have also worked with faculty and students to develop trails on their property to highlight its scenery, wildlife, and a mine that predates the California gold rush.

As part of its continued legacy of giving, the Kennedy family is looking forward to building on long-term relationships, like that with Kelly, while also getting to know a new generation of faculty in the college.

“My father was generous, and he always wanted to give something back,” Kennedy said. “He was extremely proud to be an American, and he always wanted to pay a good deal of taxes because he thought that the country had given him a great deal. The farm was an extension of that; he felt that it was a good way to give something back.”

For the Kennedy family, giving to Virginia Tech is a way to honor Robert J. Kennedy’s legacy and to ensure that his passion for protecting and preserving natural spaces — and using those spaces to foster kinship and strengthen the bonds of family through shared work — will endure.

According to Jan and Kit Kennedy, their greatest honor was for their father to be selected Virginia’s first Outstanding Tree Farmer of the Year in 1975 and for them to earn the same honor in 2016. They emphasize that Virginia Tech deserves a lot of credit for achieving these honors.

— Written by David Fleming