CONWAY — Kathleen Kennedy of Conway won more than 80 medals for her Irish dancing when she was growing up. Impressive, and Bing Crosby thought so, too.
Kennedy, who will be 92 on Jan. 13, danced in two movies in the 1940s — My Wild Irish Rose and Top o’ the Morning — and arranged choreography for The Luck of the Irish.
The native New Yorker was living in California with her mother at the time when a friend told someone at a movie studio about Kennedy’s talent.
“I was born in New York, and my sister and I used to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade down Fifth Avenue,” she said.
Her father, John Joseph Kennedy, was born in New York and raised in Ireland; her mother, Mary Jane O’Neill, was born and raised in Ireland. The couple met in the Irish Republican Army and fought in the Easter Rebellion in 1916, Kennedy said.
Kennedy and her older sister, Helen, had three brothers.
The sisters participated in Irish-dance competitions every summer at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. Kennedy quickly listed the dances — the jig, hornpipe, two-hand reel, four-hand-reel, eight-hand reel.
“We both have many, many medals we have won,” said Kennedy, who is the only member of her family still living. “I’ve got about 85 or something. I tried to count them one day just to be ornery.”
Kennedy said she wore some of her medals when she danced and inevitably lost some.
Her foray into the film industry started because of the nice California weather.
Kennedy graduated from high school, and in 1944, when World War II started, she and her mother went to see one of Kennedy’s brothers, who was stationed in Texas.
“Mom and I went to see my brother, who was going overseas,” Kennedy said.
She and her mother tried to get a train to go back home to New York, but all the trains were taken by the Army. They went to Los Angeles to try to get home.
“It was Lincoln’s birthday in February. You can imagine the weather in New York, compared to Los Angeles. When the train stopped, we opened up the door to the outside world, and I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I looked up at that sun and saw an image, and I thought, ‘It has got to be God.’”
She and her mother stayed for a while.
“I had no idea about being in the motion-picture industry,” Kennedy said. “They called me up from the studio and said, ‘We hear you do Irish dancing. Will you come in for an audition?’ I almost fell off my chair; that was the furthest thing from my mind.”
She said a friend of hers who sold Catholic items had told the studio about her.
“We didn’t have a car, so I had to ride two street cars to get to the studio,” she said.
Kennedy was cast in My Wild Irish Rose.
“I think I got $50 a week,” she said. “You’d just go in there for your own little section, you know.”
Bing Crosby also heard that she had her slew of medals pinned on velvet, and he asked her to bring them.
“He put it in a picture frame and said, ‘I’m going to put it right up here so it will be in the picture,’” Kennedy said. “He framed them and put them on the wall,” she said, adding, “Bless his heart.”
Kennedy said her collection of medals can be seen in the movie.
Crosby was nice, “altogether different” than Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald, who was in Top o’ the Morning in 1949.
“Barry Fitzgerald is just the way he is … not very friendly, and I don’t know how you would say it — a typical old man,” she said.
Kennedy said she has too many memories, and it was too long ago, to name her favorite movie experience.
“I had to be lifted up on a barrel in one of [the movies],” she said. “They were in the dance group, and they had to lift me up on a barrel, and I had to dance on a barrel.”
Kennedy said she created the choreography for The Luck of the Irish, filmed in 1948, but she didn’t appear in the movie.
She said that although she has a lot of photographs of the stars she worked with, she mostly enjoyed working with the extras, the dancers.
“That was precious because they were looking forward to a good career. The stars already had their careers and their money.”
She also saw the seedier side of Hollywood.
“They talk about sexual harassment. I went to one party in the evening, and let me tell you; it was awful. I found a window and climbed out and went back to my car,” she said, adding that every bedroom was occupied.
“It was a mess,” she said. “These starlets, they wanted to become famous, and that’s what you had to do in those days, but that wasn’t my thing.”
She also isn’t a movie buff and never has been, she said.
Kennedy said she wrote to Crosby a few years after she finished the movie with him.
“He was down in Mexico on vacation,” she said. “He sent me a letter. It’s typewritten, but he signed it. It’s probably worth a lot; I don’t know.
“I asked how musicals were going. He said, ‘Well, Kathleen, I think right now the phase of the dancing and that stuff is gone.’ They were doing dramas and stuff like that. He said, ‘My advice to you is to look for something else.’”
Her “something else” was a career in avionics.
“I did electronics, wired stuff that went into the cockpits, and I worked all over the aircraft, no matter where they wanted electricity — the wheel well, the wings, cockpit.”
Kennedy said she started in avionics in about 1950 and worked on DC-8s and DC-10s.
“I just got it by hook and crook,” she said of her training. She started at Hughes Aircraft Co. in Culver City, California. She said Howard Hughes had a house on the property.
“Howard Hughes used to walk through the plant, and I was right there on the first row. My heart used to go pitter-patter all the time. I was in love with that man,” she said, laughing like a schoolgirl.
She worked on planes in Savannah, Georgia, for Lockheed Martin in Florida and on aircraft in Wilmington, Delaware, and Wilmington, Ohio.
Kennedy, who divorced her husband after 10 years, said that when her children were young, she moved them to Pocahontas, Arkansas.
She picked up a newspaper after church one day, and she saw an advertisement for a job at Dassault Falcon Jet in Little Rock, and she applied and landed the job.
On Christmas Day 1978, she moved to Conway because she said she wanted her children in the Faulkner County school district.
Kennedy said she retired when she was about to turn 62. She was living in Conway and working at Airborne Express in Ohio.
Kennedy’s youngest son, Damian, lives with her in Conway. Her daughter, Dr. Angela Dyck, is a podiatrist in Alabama and a former Air Force captain. Kennedy said her daughter enjoys dancing, too.
“We used to go on all these cruises, and we’d get up, and I tell you what, we’d just perform,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said her daughter visited for Christmas.
“Before she left today, we were doing the dancing, and we were cracking up.”
Kennedy said that in the ’80s and ’90s, she traveled extensively.
“I’ve been all over the world. I’ve driven all over the U.S., Canada. We went across Alaska; we took a train over Mount McKinley.”
Kennedy visited her daughter when Dyck was stationed in Korea, too.
“We went to Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand. She had friends in Australia, so we went to Australia and New Zealand. I got a letter from a nun we met in New Zealand. I need to write her back,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy has made many friends in Arkansas. She started attending the Conway senior citizens center first.
“All my dear friends died, so I said, ‘Let me try [the Mayflower senior center]. I’m a Yankee, but maybe they’ll accept me,’” she said.
They absolutely accepted her, and she is known for her Irish dancing.
“She’s our star,” said Patricia Barnes, director of the Mayflower Senior Citizens Center.
“What I know about her is that she’s so amazing, that she’s done all this stuff, and she’s still just plain old Kathleen. She doesn’t put on any airs; she’s just fantastic,” Barnes said.
“On my birthday, she did the Irish jig for me, since I was born on St. Patrick’s Day. Her age has got to her, but she can still kick that leg up over her head,” Barnes said.
“She is the coolest little lady,” said Barbara Mathes, assistant to the Mayflower mayor. “She just can’t stand still. When they were caroling over at the center last Thursday, when they sang ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ she was just dancing.”
Kennedy said “there’s no telling” what she’ll do to celebrate her birthday.
But it’s a good bet she’ll dance a little jig.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.