Arthur Tewes Kennedy II
Long before I knew Arthur Kennedy, who passed last month at 87, I benefited from his legacy. So have you, if you are among the millions who have traveled Guatemala’s stretch of the Pan American Highway. He was in charge of much of the construction of what remains the country’s principal artery, and its first graded one.
Kennedy learned civil engineering in the U.S. Army during World War II. He saw active duty by the end of the war in the Army Air Corps as a first lieutenant and aviator.
Though Idaho-born, he was related to the famous Kennedy clan, being a third cousin of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Ironically, Art was a lifelong Republican who never met or even voted for Jack Kennedy. He did, however, meet Vice President Nixon—for whom he later voted—at a 1958 American Legion conference. His neighbors in Panajachel, where he lived since 1977, knew that he was unhappy over the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1962.
Arthur Kennedy would spend most of his life in Guatemala, which he loved as much as the United States. He arrived in 1949 as security adjutant at the American Embassy. When that assignment ended, he began working for the Glenstorm Corporation, under contract to build the highway. He and his first wife, Canadian Barbara Bickford, had four children, all born in Guatemala.
He took his second wife, Georgina, a Guatemalan, to every continent, where he oversaw the building of bridges, tunnels and highways. “Georgie” recalls his particular fondness for Africa. For decades, they operated Panajachel’s Playa Linda Resort, where Kennedy, a skilled chef, designed the restaurant’s menu.
Paralleling Kennedy’s American Legion membership was his service as an embassy warden. By 2005 he was already, according to consul Marty Haas, “apparently senior” to every other volunteer retained by the U.S. State Department. After retiring from what he called “wardening” in 2010, he was honored at an embassy town hall meeting. By then he had clinched the distinction of being the longest-serving warden in the history of the U.S. warden system worldwide.
It was through wardening that my own friendship with Kennedy began in 1999. He mentored me in the practice, and gave me perspective in it. Whereas nowadays wardens depend heavily on the internet to ply their responsibilities, Kennedy relied on short-wave radio in the middle of the last century.
Arthur Kennedy was never short on opinions or hospitality. He was crusty, but kind. He was a hero to my sons, partly because of the citations on his wall, but also because he was always willing to share with them his toffees, his swimming pool, and the company of his terriers and budgerigars.