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Centennial stories - Retired Faculty Martha Kendall

San José City College Centennial – Martha Kendall

Martha “Marty” Kendall started part-time at San Jose City College in 1972, and came on board full time in 1975. In addition to teaching English, she chaired the English Department, coordinated Learning Communities, and led the Teaching and Learning Center. She was the founding advisor of the Women’s Union, numerous Women’s History celebrations, and the Black Student Union. In her last year, she served as Dean of Language Arts. She retired in 2009.

Marty Kendall
Marty Kendall

For City College’s Centennial celebration, we had the chance to talk with Marty. When asked about her favorite memories of City College, she exclaimed, “The students! I’ll focus on three of them, in chronological order.”

Here’s what she said….

Sam Williams enrolled in my Developmental Composition class in the 1970s. He was not a strong writer, but he was smart, hard-working, and a nice guy. While I had enjoyed the opportunity to attend the University of Michigan and Stanford University, he had been serving in Vietnam. His mother was a maid, his father worked on the railroad, and he grew up in what he said was a remodeled chicken coop in rural Michigan.

“I have been privileged to know many inspiring students in addition to the three described here.”

Marty Kendall on her time teaching at City College

With help from the GI Bill, Sam enrolled at San Jose City College. (I learned much later that when he was a City College student, he was living in his car.) I was flattered when he asked me to be the advisor for a club he was founding — the Black Student Union. (Remember, this was the ‘70s.) It flourished under his leadership. Eventually he moved on to San Jose State, and that was the last I heard about him until —

Twenty years later, I got a phone call from Sam Williams’ accountant. What? Sam Williams’ accountant? It turns out Sam had become an excellent businessman. With his accumulated wealth, he was setting up a charitable foundation named in honor of his parents. The accountant asked if I would like to be a board member for the new foundation. Of course!

On my way to the first board meeting, I worried. ‘I haven’t seen Sam in twenty years. I hope I recognize him.’ What did he say when I entered the room? ‘Ms. Kendall, you’ve let your hair grow!’ We burst out laughing, delighted to be cooperating on another worthwhile project. The purpose of the foundation was to award scholarships to students at City College and San Jose State.

Portrait image of Marty Kendall during her tenure at City College
Marty Kendall during her tenure at City College

I was one of the four board members, which included his accountant, and two other SJCC folks – history instructor Jan Groenen, and counselor T.J. Owens. To my complete surprise, Sam announced that he was giving us each a stipend. I had felt honored to be selected to serve on the board, a position I assumed was not paid. When he told us the amount of the stipends, I was flabbergasted. I leapt up and said, ‘Sam, this is huge for me! Let me shake your hand. Thank you!’ He acted embarrassed. I guess by then he was accustomed to dealing with large amounts of money, whereas I was accustomed to dealing with large stacks of papers to grade.

I applaud Sam’s achievements and generosity. Like many others, I will never forget him.

“I got a phone call from Sam Williams’ accountant. What? Sam Williams’ accountant?”

Marty Kendall’s reaction when she was called to be on a scholarship foundation for her former student Sam Williams

With the support of SJCC President Dr. Byron Skinner in the late 1980s, I developed a Humanities course called ‘Introduction to World Literature.’ It often attracted immigrants, including Nawuth Keat. In his rough English, Nawuth did not say much, but he paid attention in class and completed the assignments.

For a required book report, students could choose from thirty books by authors from around the world. He chose To Destroy You Is No Loss by Teeda Butt Mam. It’s about her family under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I warned Nawuth, ‘Other Cambodian students have selected this book, but they had trouble finishing it. It was too painful for them, bringing up terrible memories.’ Nawuth nodded.

When he turned in his paper about that book, I was appalled when he commented, ‘Her family had it easy compared to mine.’

On the last day of the semester, Nawuth brought a big box of donuts, offered them to his classmates, and said, ‘I’d like to share my story.’ He told us about watching Khmer Rouge thugs murder his mother and baby sister. They shot Nawuth three times. He was nine years old. Then he was separated from his remaining family. The Khmer Rouge made him a child slave in the rice fields. Listening to this tragedy, I was not the only one with tears running down my cheeks.

Without thinking twice, I said, “Nawuth, would you like me to write your story down for you?’ ‘Yes,’ he said — and so it began.

Nawuth and I met many times in my GE office. He told me about his experiences, and I did the writing. Sometimes the going got tough as he resurrected traumatic memories. I said, ‘We don’t HAVE to finish this, you know.’ He replied, ‘I want people to know the truth.’ That truth was published by National Geographic: Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide. The story is his, but the words are mine. I’ve written twenty books. In many ways, this one brings the most satisfaction. The media section of my website, MarthaKendall.com, includes a brief interview with Nawuth shortly after the book was published: https://youtu.be/-Zx8px39WLU. We also collaborated on a follow-up story about Nawuth’s visit back to Cambodia. It appears in National Geographic’s collection, Journeys Home.

“I said, ‘We don’t HAVE to finish this, you know.’ He replied, ‘I want people to know the truth.’”

Marty Kendall talking with Nawuth Keats about writing a book about his life in Cambodia
Book cover of "Alive in the Killing Fields" with a young boy carrying a bag walking alone in a foggy field
Alive in the Killing Fields: Surviving the Khmer Rouge Genocide by Nawuth Keat and Martha E. Kendall

The third student I’ll highlight is Vicente Ruvalcaba, who enrolled in my Introduction to Literature class. He sat in the back row and looked down most of the time. When he did talk, he put his hand over his mouth, and he spoke so softly I had trouble hearing him. He was clearly struggling, and I knew better than to ask him to speak up. I was glad he felt safe to speak at all.

Many of his mannerisms unfamiliar to me stemmed from gang life in Los Angeles. He had fled L.A. to seek refuge at his uncle’s in San Jose, where he slept on a mattress in the basement. His younger brother was already in jail. Escaping to San Jose seemed Vicente’s only chance for a different future for himself.

During the time I knew Vicente at City College, he transformed. His self-confidence grew, and during lively discussions he became an opinion leader. He composed a sonnet for his brother. 

Vicente transferred to UC Berkeley and then fulfilled his goal to become a middle school teacher. He told me that when he was in middle school, he had gone down the wrong path. He wanted to educate kids at that age not to make the same kinds of bad choices.

I have been privileged to know many inspiring students in addition to the three described here. With a full heart, I thank San Jose City College for attracting them to our campus and allowing me to contribute what I could to their lives.”

Marty Kendall sitting at her desk in her City College office holding a coffee cup and a book
Marty Kendall in her City College GE office