U.S. Statesman Jack Kemp '57 Dies

Jack Kemp '57 H'90, the Occidental College quarterback and AFL football star whose pioneering support of supply-side economic theory played a key role in the modern conservative revival, died Saturday, May 2 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 73.


Kemp announced he had been diagnosed with cancer early in January, and as recently as a couple of weeks ago went out to lunch with some old Occidental friends. A statement released by his family said he died peacefully shortly after 6 p.m. "surrounded by the love of his family and his pastor."

The Occidental College flag will be flown at half-staff on Monday, May 4 in his memory.

After a standout 13-year career in professional football, Kemp went on to serve nine terms as a Congressman from upstate New York, ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for the first President Bush and was Bob Dole's vice presidential running mate in the 1996 presidential race.

But as the New York Times pointed out in a front-page obituary, Kemp's greatest legacy is likely his determined advocacy of tax cuts to stimulate the economy while a congressman from Buffalo -- an issue that became central to Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 presidential campaign and remains a central tenet of Republican philosophy today.

Shaped by his experience in professional football, Kemp also was a long-time advocate for greater representation of African-Americans and other minorities in the Republican Party. "The GOP must emphasize by reaching out in a dramatic new way to people of color that it's truly a party of Lincoln -- with inclusion, not exclusion, as its predicate," he told Occidental Magazine after the 2008 election that brought Barack Obama '83 to the White House.

"Jack Kemp's commitment to public service and his passion for politics influenced not only the direction of his party, but his country," President Obama said in a statement. He praised Kemp as "a man who could fiercely advocate his own beliefs and principles while also remembering the lessons he learned years earlier on the football field: that bitter divisiveness between race and class and station only stood in the way of the common aim of a team to win." 

 Jack Kemp playing football at Oxy

"In reading President Obama's tribute to Jack Kemp, I was struck at how fitting it was for one distinguished Occidental alumnus to recognize the other," said Occidental President Robert Skotheim. "Although their time at Occidental was two decades apart, and their political philosophies often placed them at odds, both are profound testaments to the power of a liberal arts education. Both are expressions of a century-old tradition of public service at Occidental, and both have sought to transcend the burden of race with courage and principle. Occidental joins with the rest of the country in mourning Jack Kemp's passing."

A Los Angeles native, Kemp came to Occidental in 1953, joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, majored in physical education and played football for four years with classmate Jim Mora, the future head coach of the NFL's New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts. An All-Conference pick in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Kemp was the nation's third-ranking small college passer and a Little All-American honorable mention his senior year, as well as a record-holding javelin thrower on the track team. He was named one of the NCAA's "100 Most Influential Student-Athletes" in 2006.

He met his wife, Joanne Main '58, at Occidental, who survives him, together with children Jeff, Jennifer, Judith, and Jimmy, and 17 grandchildren. The Kemps regularly returned to Occidental for class reunions and other functions, including presentation of the college's Alumni Seal Award to him in 1980 and an honorary degree in 1990. He also continued to serve as a mentor to more recent Oxy graduates, including Muhammad Ali Hasan '04, who ran for Congress in Colorado in 2008.

After graduation, Kemp was drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions but was cut before the season began. It wasn't until he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers of the fledgling American Football League in 1960 that his professional career took off. By the time he retired in 1969, he had led the Buffalo Bills to four division titles and two AFL championships in seven years and held all-time AFL records in pass attempts (3,055), completions (1,428) and passing yardage (21,130).

Kemp was a founder and five-time president of the AFL Players Association and often traced his concern for minorities to his experiences in pro football. In January 1965, he supported a black players' boycott of an all-star game in New Orleans after they were barred from nightclubs and taxis in the city. The game was moved to Houston, where the black players participated.

Kemp's congressional career began on the long flights between football games, where he continued his college practice of reading works by major economic thinkers and political philosophers. It was while serving in the House that his calls for tax cuts were adopted by Reagan, and in 1981 he won passage of the Kemp-Roth bill, a three-year, 23 percent tax cut.

"I think there is no doubt that he had a greater impact on conservative and Republican economic philosophy than anyone else," Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told the New York Times . "More than Laffer, more than Reagan."

After Kemp's unsuccessful presidential run in 1988, President George H.W. Bush chose him to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. During his four years as secretary, Kemp authored legislation to establish inner-city enterprise zones and advocated the expansion of home ownership among the poor through resident management and ownership of public and subsidized housing.

His final appearance on the national stage was as Dole's vice-presidential running mate in 1996, a campaign in which President Bill Clinton was reelected. Three years earlier, working with William Bennett and Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Kemp helped found Empower America, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy and advocacy organization. He served a co-director until 2004. More recently, he served as chairman of Kemp Partners, the strategic consulting firm.