Distinctive chapters delineate the story of author and former Janesville resident Sharon Kennedy’s life. 

A Michigan native, her early career began in Wayne County, where she served as a municipal attorney. A career in education followed, beginning in Lansing, Mich., and ending, after retirement, at Blackhawk Technical College, Janesville. Defining herself as an “emerging author,” her story continues with the recent publication of her second book, Struggle & Strength: Eight Ordinary Women with Lives Most Unusual. 

Kennedy will return to Janesville to discuss her most recent work on Friday (Aug. 9), appearing in the public meeting room at the Hedberg Public Library, 316 S. Main St., between 2 and 3 p.m. (registration required, call: 608-758-6600), and on Saturday (Aug. 10), as a featured author at Raven’s Wish Gallery & Studio, 101 W. Milwaukee St., from 2-4 p.m. 

Published this year by Arizona-based Wheatmark, Inc., the book features stories about life journeys made by women. Three are from Wisconsin, and one, Alice Barlass, is currently a resident of Milton.

Kennedy’s first book: Classroom at the End of the ‘Line’: Assembly Line Workers at Midwest Community and Technical Colleges, was published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform in 2013.  

Detroit and the law

Located within the Detroit metropolitan area, Kennedy grew up in Ferndale, which she described as a small town of 20,000. 

Educational pursuits took her, first, to Wayne State University, Detroit, where she earned an undergraduate degree in sociology in 1979, then, to East Lancing, where she earned a law degree from Michigan State University College of Law in 1984, and finally, to Nebraska, where she earned a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2002. 

After law school, Kennedy went into private practice, serving as an associate for nearly two years. In 1986, she went into municipal law, serving as corporation counsel in Wayne County, which she described as the largest county in Michigan and the county that includes Detroit, until 1993.

Over time, Kennedy said, she learned that she enjoyed teaching more than practicing law; a change in career path followed. 

From Lansing to Janesville 

In 1993, Kennedy joined the fulltime faculty at Lansing Community College. Three years later, she said, she was a fulltime administrator, moving next into the role of fulltime director of criminal justice. 

Between 1993 and 2001, she “stepped into several interim roles at higher levels,” she said, and by 2001, when she left Lansing, she was the interim dean responsible for career and technology programming. 

She next arrived in Palos Hills, Ill., where she was hired as the dean of career and technical programming at Moraine Valley Community College. She held that position for seven years. 

She left Illinois, she said, to accept a position at Blackhawk Technical College as the vice president of academic affairs. 

Recession, and impression

Kennedy arrived in Janesville in October of 2007. In December of 2008, General Motors idled its Janesville plant. Production ceased in April of 2009. The displacement of workers and repercussions at Blackhawk Technical College were “overwhelming,” she said. 

According to Kennedy, some 1,500 displaced assembly line workers came through the doors at Blackhawk. 

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development made funding available to retrain dislocated workers through two programs, she said: the federal Workforce Investment Act, and the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. 

The displaced workers were not all from GM. Some came from supplier plants, like Lear Corporation, a company that makes automotive seating. In 2009 and 2010, Kennedy remembered, the influx of new students arriving at Blackhawk was so large there wasn’t enough room in the parking lot. 

Said Kennedy: “They (workers) had counted on retiring from those plants. When the plants closed, they were quite angry; they were quite confident there was no future in manufacturing. 

“They were not interested in anything that looked like a manufacturing facility floor.”

Trying to retrain the workers came with unforeseen challenges: “Computer training was the No. 1 problem as far as I was concerned,” she said. 

Students needed first to be taught how to be students before they could properly engage in a two-year curriculum. Watching the students and staff struggle to overcome such skill-specific deficits was “heartbreaking,” Kennedy said. 

Responding to the struggles of students, Blackhawk faculty members, working, Kennedy said, under conditions, which she described as “all consuming,” tried to find the best approaches for teaching their students. While working closely with both faculty and students, Kennedy said, she watched their stories develop. 

“I felt it was a compelling situation that people needed to know,” she said in describing her motivation for writing her first book, a task that took three years, she said. 

“I maintained that if I could keep those folks for another semester, they could be transformed into students,” she said, but as the government money ran out, few could afford loans. 

“Some went into healthcare, and that took longer than two years, so they needed loans. But they did graduate.

“When Amy Goldstein of the Washington Post came to town, Amy and I became friends. Amy is a wonderful writer, and the book she wrote (Janesville: An American Story, Simon and Schuster, 2017) accurately reflects what happened,” Kennedy said. 

Kennedy retired from her position at Blackhawk Technical College in 2013, and moved to her current home, in Charlotte, Mich. to be closer to family, she said.  

While the displacement of workers brought dismay, and statistically, she said, she wished she could have helped more, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” she said.  

A book about women

For Kennedy, a component of career and lifestyle was travel. Upon reflection, she said, she realized she had met and made friends with many interesting women whose stories she wanted to tell. 

“People just show up in your life, and you have to be curious,” Kennedy said. 

Three Wisconsin women featured in her latest book are: Jayne Jordan of Whitefish Bay, Constance Fletcher who lived, until her recent retirement, in Keshena, near the Menomonie Indian Reservation, and Alice Barlass, a native of Janesville. 

Each story intrigued Kennedy for different reasons, she said. 

When Kennedy met Jordan at an authors’ event in Lake Geneva, she said: “I didn’t know many immigrants to this country.”

Kennedy learned that Jordan was the subject of an earlier book: This Token of Freedom: A Remarkable Wartime Journey, written by Jon Helminiak, which documented Jordan’s childhood spent as a World War II refugee, evacuated from England to America, in advance of German bombing. 

The book ended with Jordan’s decision, after being returned to England, to resume her life in Milwaukee, Kennedy said, and she wrote about Jordan’s life in Milwaukee after she returned as a young adult. 

Fletcher, Kennedy said, was a member of her aerobics class. The two met in Arizona, where Kennedy lives seasonally and Fletcher makes her home.

It was an unusual tattoo on Fletcher’s leg that initially attracted Kennedy’s attention, she said.  While explaining the adornment, Fletcher shared the story of her life as a vocals teacher on the Menomonie Indian Reservation, a job she held, before retiring, for 28 years.

“Alice is my farm woman. She is a woman of the soil, rooted to one place her whole life,” Kennedy said, adding, by contrast, she, like two-thirds of the population, she said, has lived her whole life in cities and suburbs. Kennedy’s curiosity was compounded, she said, because her own mother had grown up on a farm in South Dakota.

The two met while Kennedy lived in Janesville. Both were members of Zonta, an international service group, focusing on advancing the status of women. The group helps raise scholarship money for girls seeking higher education, Kennedy said. Barlass had been a member for 40 years. 

While Barlass spent nearly all of her life living on the family farm west of Janesville, today, at 88, she resides in Milton. 

The Barlass family has enjoyed long-term participation with and national recognition for breeding and developing top-producing Jersey dairy cows, according to multiple dairy industry publications.

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