MERIDEN — To start the story of how Wendi Kemp got involved in the “Best of the Bunch,” we have to go back to last Wednesday morning when she was reading about the series in the Record-Journal at breakfast in her Meriden home.
No, strike that.
Let’s start 24 hours earlier, on Tuesday the 2nd, when I was writing the story that Wendi Kemp would read at her breakfast table on Wednesday, June 3, before heading to her job as deputy chief counsel at ESPN.
No, scrap that, too.
Let’s go back to the 1980s, when Wendi Kemp was a two-sport athlete at Northwestern University after a three-sport career at Cheshire High School.
No, wait. I’ve got it.
The road to paying it forward can be long. We’re going back to the mid-1970s, when Wendi Kemp was a fifth-grader in Bob Smith’s class at Doolittle School.
After watching Wendi light it up in basketball for yet another day, Mr. Smith observed, “You’re better than the boys. By the time you get to high school, you’ll be able to get a scholarship anywhere you want.”
Kemp tells the story 45 years later and chuckles.
“I had to go home and look up the word. I didn’t know what ‘scholarship’ meant.”
Kemp expanded her vocabulary that day. In time, she learned how prescient Bob Smith was. From 1982 to 1986, Kemp attended Northwestern on a full athletic scholarship.
Now, in 2020, she expands the place where sports and academics meet. The Wendi J. Kemp Scholarship makes its debut as part of the R-J’s “Best of the Bunch” awards event. One of the seven finalists for Female Scholar-Athletes of the Year will receive $500.
We hope it’s the start of a beautiful friendship between us and Ms. Kemp.
“I looked at sports as just being blessed,” Kemp said in introducing her scholarship. “I had a lot of ability, but I had the opportunity. I got particularly a lot of attention because I was a scholar-athlete, the combination.”
What brought Kemp to the R-J awards table was a line from the “Best of the Bunch” story on the Female Scholar-Athletes of the Year.
“I’ll just say if you’re a prospective sponsor following this series, thinking about getting involved in our awards event, reading at a time when the country seems on the verge of collapse, remember where the promise for a better future resides. In young people such as these.”
The funny thing is, I wrote that line, erased it, put it back in, erased it a second time, then put it back to stay.
“I’m sitting at the breakfast table, reading the article, and it just struck me,” Kemp said when we met a few days later. “I’m lucky to be able to do this. I’m happy to do it. Simple thing to do to get involved. I’m glad you put it in the article.”
There were plenty of articles written about Kemp in her playing days. Not long after lighting up her fifth-grade class at Doolittle School, she was tearing up the CIAC at Cheshire High.
In basketball, playing for coach Cindy Hitchcock, Kemp scored 1,579 career points. Nearly 40 years later, that remains the most ever scored by a girls basketball player at Cheshire High School.
Kemp also scored 91 goals and won a state championship in field hockey and was the starting shortstop in softball, playing both of those sports for coach Arlene Salvati.
When the spring of 1982 rolled around, Kemp graduated No. 3 in her class and, as Mr. Smith had predicted, had her choice of colleges.
Wanting to go away to a good school without leaving family far behind, Kemp chose Northwestern. Illinois was a de facto second home. Kemp’s parents grew up there. Her maternal grandmother, an aunt and several cousins still lived there.
Off to Evanston went Wendi, full ride in hand. Kemp played field hockey in the fall and lacrosse in the spring. Twice a month, she visited her Illinois relations.
At the end of her sophomore year, Kemp’s grandmother passed away from cancer.
“I think there is a higher power that helps you make decisions,” Kemp remarked. “I never would have had those two years with her — I saw her two weekends a month for two years — so I feel very blessed I made that choice.”
By the time she graduated and headed back home to pursue a law degree at UConn, Kemp had attained All-American status in lacrosse and All-Big 10 designation in field hockey. She signed off as Northwestern’s fourth leading scorer all-time in both sports and, in 2006, was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
It’s one of five Halls in which Kemp can claim membership: Cheshire High School, Connecticut Field Hockey, Connecticut Basketball, New Haven Tap-Off Club and Northwestern.
Kemp’s memories from her playing days are keen. She remembers Cheshire basketball knocking off Branford and their twin towers of Bethany Collins and Beth Chandler (“we had no business beating them”) and then flying to Illinois the next day for a field hockey tryout with Northwestern.
She still can see the goal that enabled Old Dominion to upset Northwestern in the 1985 national field hockey semifinals. (“It was a dribbler over the line.”)
She takes great pride in Northwestern being ranked No. 1 for most of that 1985 field hockey season. She takes great pride in graduating the following spring with the Director’s Award, which goes to the Northwestern student-athlete with the highest GPA.
“No better way to go through school than with a group of teammates,” Kemp said of her college career. “It teaches you time management; it teaches you leadership. It teaches you disappointment. I had to learn how to lose. I was not such a good loser, but much better than I used to be.”
Kemp got married to Deb Stolle and continued to play sports while building her legal career — early morning basketball at the Waterbury YMCA, mostly against guys, softball in men’s and women’s recreational leagues, golf at Middlefield’s Indian Springs, her home course.
Her one-time coach, Cindy Hitchock, is in the golf league at Indian Springs, still playing at age 85.
“That’s our goal,” said Kemp. “Our goal is to be 85 and still hitting a golf ball.”
I like the sound of that. Let it be. No need for a rewrite.
The Record-Journal “Best of the Bunch” awards video airs next Thursday, June 18 on Facebook at 6:30 p.m. and will be on myrecordjournal.com after that. The R-J is giving away an iPad Mini to one person who watches the event live on Facebook. Enter at myrecordjournal.com/ipad. Up next: Team of the Year.