Obituary: Richard Kirkendall

Longtime CUSD superintendent, educational innovator, volunteer, traveler

Former superintendent of Claremont Unified School District Richard S. Kirkendall died June 26 at the age of 93.

He was born December 14, 1926 in Los Angeles, the oldest of six children. He grew up mostly in the Compton-Lynwood area during the Great Depression.

As a young adolescent, “Dick” contributed to the family income by selling fresh squeezed orange juice, doughnuts and finally eggs to local families from the back of his bike. He would rise at 4 a.m. to squeeze and deliver the juice before breakfast and going to school. He recalled that he was able to carry 30 eggs dozen in a crate on his bike and was proud that he didn’t think he ever broke more than a dozen at one time.

He went to Compton Jr. High School where he became best friends with former National Football League commissioner, Pete Rozelle. Some of his fondest childhood memories were of he and Pete camping and fishing in the mountains near Idyllwild.

He was an avid camper and outdoorsman and earned his Eagle Scout designation during that time. He completed his junior and senior years of high school in one year and enrolled at California Institute of Technology at the age of 16 to study electrical engineering. He later looked back on this with disfavor, believing that no child should enter college at the age of 16.

He attended three semesters at Cal Tech and then, with the US actively engaged in World War II, he joined the navy, serving mostly in the Atlantic as an electronics technician. After his discharge from the military, he decided that rather than return to studying electrical engineering he wanted to be a teacher, saying he “enjoyed interactions with other people rather than inanimate relationships.”

He was active in the Youth of Unity church organization and in 1947 became its president. While attending the group’s national conference at Unity Farm in the summer of 1947 near Lee’s Summit, Missouri, it was his duty as president to “kiss and crown” the bathing beauty contest winner, which is how he met the woman who would become his wife of 70 years, Marilyn “Lynn” Tirre, who was from St. Louis.

The couple married in 1948, and, wanting to live within 200 miles of either his family or hers while Mr. Kirkendall continued his education, they settled in Liberty, Missouri, where he attended William Jewell College and earned his bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology.

Mr. Kirkendall moved back to the Los Angeles area in 1950, where he pursued graduate work in a clinical psychology program and earned his teaching credential at the University of California at Los Angeles.

He drove a truck delivering furniture, full or part-time, while obtaining his credential and during his first three years of teaching.

He began his career in education in 1954, teaching second grade in the Downey Unified School District before being tapped in 1957 to become the principal of the district’s brand new Edith Unsworth Elementary School. It was there that he initiated a multi-graded team teaching program based on academic disciplines.

In 1963 he was recruited by Claremont Unified School District to be the principal of Sycamore Elementary School and moved his family of six—wife Lynn, sons Rick, Jeff and Brad, and daughter Linda—to Claremont.

Mr. Kirkendall served as Sycamore’s principal until 1967. He was deputy superintendent for CUSD from 1967 to 1969, when he was selected to be superintendent, a position he held for 18 years. During that time he continued his own education, earning his PhD in educational administration from Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University).

During his 24 years with Claremont schools, he implemented a number of innovative programs, including differentiated salary schedules, management merit increases, team-teaching and multi-grading. While deputy superintendent, he hired the staff and coordinated the opening of Danbury School for Orthopedically Handicapped Students, one of the first of its kind.

Upon his retirement in 1987, the Claremont Unified School District honored his service by dedicating and naming its main office building the Richard S. Kirkendall Education Center. He commented many times that this was one of his life’s greatest honors.

In addition to the naming of the CUSD education center for him, other honors and awards of which he was particularly proud included the establishment of the Richard S. Kirkendall Award in 1987 by the Claremont Management Association to be awarded annually to an individual for extraordinary contribution to the Claremont Unified School District; being named Grand Marshal of the city of Claremont’s Fourth of July festivities in 1990; Boy Scouts of America Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, Silver Beaver Award and District Award of Merit, and DeMolay Legion of Honor “for outstanding contribution to the development of youth.”

He was also an active volunteer. Some of his professional and community activities included chairing and/or serving on the boards of directors of Suburban School Superintendents; Association of California School Administrators; California Elementary School Administrators Association; California Teachers Association; California Retired Teachers Association; Dean’s Advisory Committee, University of Southern California, Department of Education; Mount San Antonio Gardens; CUSD Facilities Advisory, Bond Oversight, and Asset Advisory committees; Pilgrim Place; University Club of Claremont; Inter Valley Health Plan; United Way, Greater Los Angeles and Mt. Baldy; American Red Cross, Claremont Chapter; Boy Scouts of America, Old Baldy Council; Claremont Chamber of Commerce; Claremont Education Network, ED Net; Citrus College Foundation, EdSource; Californians for Educational Excellence; and Claremont United Church of Christ, Congregational. He was actively serving on the boards of Inter Valley Health Plan and University Club of Claremont at the time of his death.

His passion for family and trailer traveling was fulfilled by visiting almost all 50 states with his wife, Lynn, and in alternating summers taking their grandsons or granddaughters camping through the southwest.

He was happiest surrounded by family and fulfilled one of his “bucket list” items by taking a cruise through the Panama Canal with all of his four children and their spouses this past January. He said it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that could only have been made better had his beloved wife been able to accompany them. She preceded him in death in 2018.

He is survived by his four children, Rick (Linda) of Hendersonville, North Carolina; Jeff (Colette) of Aurora, Colorado; Linda Hunt (Rick) of La Quinta, California; and Brad (Kym) of  Manassas, Virginia; and his 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, who will greatly miss his famous bear hugs.

Due to the current pandemic, memorial services will be private.

The family requests that should anyone wish to recognize his commitment to education, donations may be made to Claremont Unified School District, attention Superintendents Office.




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