A Passionate Advocate for Outdoor Education

Jim Kennedy arrived in Colorado with a high school diploma and a penchant for adventure. His hometown of Honolulu had beaches and jungles, sure. But in Denver, snowcapped peaks stuck their noses into his line of sight, and steep trails and shimmering lakes had him reaching for his fly rod. The mountain West seemed to offer a limitless landscape for exploration—as an outdoorsman and as a person.

“The fact that DU had a good business school was appealing to me,” says Kennedy (BSBA ’70), “and the fact that it was located in what I thought was heaven.”

And heaven, he came to learn, makes for an extraordinary classroom. With the educational power of the outdoors in mind, Kennedy has been a significant partner behind DU’s commitment to launch a mountain campus. A gift from Kennedy made the purchase of DU’s new campus possible.

The University of Denver Board of Trustees proposed and voted unanimously to name the 724-acre slice of heaven after him. 

“Jim’s passion for outdoor education was apparent the moment I met him,” Chancellor Jeremy Haefner says. “His vision and generosity are deeply reflected by his desire to give back to the university that was such an important part of his life. Thanks to Jim, I’m thrilled we are now able to set in motion this extraordinary opportunity for our students, one that will become such a critical part of the 4D Experience at DU.”

Two hours northwest of DU, the James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus, with its dramatic rock formations, exceptional access to national forest lands and ready-to-use facilities, provides an ideal setting for the lessons in leadership and opportunities for independence that Kennedy associates with his time as a DU business student.

Coming to DU “was my first time away from home for an extended period of time,” he says. “There was really no safety net. All of a sudden, I was in an environment where an early accounting teacher said, ‘Look, I’m not here to babysit you. We provide the information, but you need to do your best to retain it. And you need to do your work.’”

School was important for Kennedy, but so was making time to explore his new surroundings. On many winter afternoons, Kennedy would leave class and speed up to Loveland Basin for a few ski runs. When the weather was warmer, he would hike, fish, go four-wheeling or ride his Motocross bike. These experiences sparked what would become a lifelong passion for the outdoors.

After graduating, Kennedy raced Motocross professionally and won the Colorado State Championship. He also co-owned a bike shop in Boulder, but he soon moved to Georgia to work at his family’s business. At the Cox-owned Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he served as a production manager, ad salesman and assistant business manager. 

Although he loved the work, he couldn’t put the Rocky Mountains out of his mind. And those fond memories no doubt contributed to his decision to head back west just a few years later when he took the post of publisher at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and president of Grand Junction Newspapers Inc.

Returning to Colorado, Kennedy built on the lessons he learned his first time in the Centennial State. His past collegiate experiences in the classroom and in the outdoors helped him navigate life in his new position. He furthered his understanding of nature and wilderness while serving on the Colorado Division of Wildlife Commission for four years and being its chairman his final year, from 1984 to 1985. 

“All of a sudden, I’m back in Colorado running a newspaper, and again, there’s no safety net,” he recalls. “But ultimately, my education helped. It helped me mature and grow and prepare to go out into the world. If I can help other people have that same experience, I want to do that.”

The Kennedy Mountain Campus pays that experience forward. 

“It’s a different kind of classroom being outdoors,” Kennedy says. “It opens up the outdoor world to people who haven’t had that much experience in the past. I think it gives them more of a commitment to do everything they can to preserve our environment.”

To ensure students get the most out of their college education, Kennedy encouraged the University to consider a remote location, where students could have a unique experience, a world apart from their experiences on a traditional campus. It’s a place where Kennedy hopes future students form a bond with the outdoors, like the
one he developed as a young student.

“My vision isn’t a place where the kids could walk two minutes across a paved parking lot and buy a latte,” he says. “That’s not my view of an outdoor experience. I want a place that’s away from all that, away from normal everyday life.”

DU found what it was looking for at the old Magic Sky Ranch, the former site of a Girl Scout summer camp. There, up to 150 students at a time will be able to enjoy the area’s rock climbing, wildlife and wilderness in a remote setting.

Kennedy’s gift is his second significant contribution to DU. In 2008, his support established the James C. Kennedy Institute for Educational Success at the Morgridge College of Education.

Both donations reflect Kennedy’s philanthropic philosophy. He says he feels “extremely blessed” to be in a position where he can give. His gifts don’t need to be flashy; he just wants them to make a meaningful difference. When Kennedy gave to his high school in Hawaii, for example, he directed the cash toward deferred maintenance. In Atlanta, his philanthropy helped establish a network of greenway trails. Donations from Kennedy, a cancer survivor, have furthered cancer research at Emory University and have dramatically improved the patient experience there.

He hopes the Kennedy Mountain Campus will have a lasting impact at DU.

“I see education as the key to unlock so many doors for people,” he says. “I think the campus is going to be a differentiator for the University of Denver. I think the University will create wonderful programs there, and I’m excited to see them get going.” 

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