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AU Community Remembers Jack Kay, Family Legacy

Kay - Jack Kay 2012

The late Jack Kay (center) stands with family in front of his father’s portrait at the Abraham S. Kay Spiritual Life Center’s rededication in fall 2012.

The 14 foot tall bronze flame atop the Abraham S. Kay Spiritual Life Center stands as a shining memorial to the spirit and generosity of the Kay family. The flame pays particular tribute this week as the university community remembers Jack Kay, son of the Center’s namesake and friend of AU, who recently passed away at the age of 87.

His relationship with AU began in 1961 when his father, local Jewish businessman and philanthropist Abraham Kay, joined AU’s Methodist president Hurst Anderson to build one of the nation’s first interfaith houses of worship.

As Kay Center assistant director Christine Gettings describes, 1960s Christianity in America was experiencing a movement toward Protestant-Catholic cooperation, but AU – a university with deep Methodist roots – wanted something more.

“The barriers between different religious communities were breaking, and there was a lot of mutual cooperation and understanding,” she says. “American University decided to take that a step further and build an interfaith center. Not just interfaith in the sense of Catholic and Protestant, but Christians and Jews, which for its time was pretty remarkable and revolutionary.”

Generous donations from Abraham Kay, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, and the Methodist church established the interfaith chapel. A 1961 issue of the The Eagle student newspaper details the event announcing plans for the Kay Center – an occasion attended by the United States labor secretary, the governor of Maryland, the auxiliary bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, and the ambassador of Israel.

The Center’s now 24 faith groups, from Catholic to Hindu and Baha’i to Secular Humanist, prove strong testament to the founders’ intentions.

Over the years, the chaplains roster has featured one of the first women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church alongside a British Methodist chaplain from then Southern Rhodesia who went on to become the first president of the new nation of Zimbabwe.

At a university with many students dedicated to studying international relations, Gettings believes the interfaith experience in the Center functions as the Kay family’s gift toward a truly well-rounded education.

“In our increasingly globalized world, it’s important to understand religion,” she explains. “It’s important to understand the language that many people speak, and many people speak the language of faith. Just understanding how one’s religious tradition shapes their world view, their political choices, what they feel compelled to act on.”

The Center also developed programs that sent students out into the domestic and international community to experience social justice issues at work, and these programs have blossomed into core facets of the university.

“A lot of things that are celebrated about AU had their genesis in the Kay Spiritual Life Center,” Gettings says. “Specifically, the Center for Community Engagement and Service and the Alternative Break program started [here]. It’s important to remember that we are so committed as an institution to service and to justice, global education, and global engagement.”

According to university chaplain Joe Eldridge, Jack Kay – himself a generous philanthropist for educational and religious causes across the country – proudly carried the mantle of his father’s bold and innovative vision.

“He rejoiced in the legacy,” he says. “He felt a commitment to continue honoring his father’s memory by faithfully demonstrating affection for the Kay Spiritual Life Center and Hillel. He expressed that affection through his very generous contributions.”

In 2012, Jack Kay funded extensive renovations to give the chapel interior a refreshed, contemporary look. Though his father passed away before seeing the Center’s completion in 1965, Jack Kay was on hand to see the restorations as well as the building’s rededication in his family’s honor.

“He was eager to move expeditiously to refurbish the chapel, and we are delighted that it was finished in time for him to see it,” Eldridge says. “He was a philanthropist. He had a passion for edifying humanity.”

At last year’s rededication, AU President Dr. Neil Kerwin stated that the Center’s original interfaith mission will continue as a defining feature of AU.

“The Kay Spiritual Life Center will always be a touchstone in the life of this great university,” he said.

In that way, the memory and generous spirit of both Abraham and Jack Kay will endure as an important part of the campus, just like the bronze flame that signals their great work.