Faith has always held a steering role in Hank Kirk’s life.
A devout Presbyterian, Kirk has been drawn to an early passage in the Bible’s book of Joshua in which God spoke to Joshua, the leader of the Israelites who was chosen after the death of Moses.
“(God) says, go forward now with courage and confidence,” Hank Kirk said.
As with Joshua, those words of encouragement stuck with the 85-year-old former Centralia College president too, so much so that it inspired the name of his new memoir: “Go Forward With Courage and Confidence: The World of Henry Port Kirk III.”
The 352-page autobiography, out in limited run by Toledo-based publisher Chapters of Life, details the personal and professional challenges and accomplishments of the Pennsylvania-born educator.
The book underscores the importance of education, in Hank Kirk’s case higher education, as he details challenges he faced while pursuing his doctorate in higher education, including the deaths of his first wife and eldest son, both within four years of each other.
Hank Kirk and his wife Jenny Kirk stopped by The Chronicle this week to discuss their new book, which they affectionately called their “COVID project,” a distraction during those early lonely pandemic days. The book goes through Hank Kirk’s heritage, how his family got to Pennsylvania, his rigorous pursuit and rise to becoming a college president, his personal life and losses, his retirement and efforts to build the new University of Livingstonia in Malawi.
What he hopes people take away from the book is simple: “You’ve got to have courage, you’ve got to have confidence, you’ve got to have a vision for what you want to do,” then you find the right people to make it a reality.
While it covers a lot of ground, the couple said they’re not finished — a second volume is in the works and will focus on family and friends.
When asked what prompted efforts to detail his life, Hank Kirk said there’s been considerable interest in the details of what he and Jenny Kirk have done over the past couple years, as well as his upbringing.
“It’s been an interesting career. Higher education has been a major focus, having ended up at Centralia College, and then off to Africa to start a new university,” he said.
Jenny Kirk said it’s all about heritage and how Hank carved his path through higher education. The story starts with a gift from Hank Kirk’s daughter, Maryann, who left her father a copy of “How to Write Your Life Story: The Classic Guide for the Nonprofessional Writer” by Lois Daniel.
“I’m no writer,” Hank Kirk thought back then. He also thought, “I don’t have a very good memory anyway.”
But, he writes in the book’s prologue, he was never very good at saying no to his daughter.
That’s when the couple set out to begin work on the book, which is divided into three sections detailing his personal upbringing and education, his professional career at Centralia College, his work in Africa and retirement.
“Higher education has been the big love of my career,” he said, noting of Lewis County that he “liked it so much, I didn’t go anywhere else. I just stayed here at Centralia College. I think it’s a unique institution and a unique location.”
In an early visit to the college, Hank Kirk writes that the campus was “dated and drab,” and that a consultant had recommended closing the college. But in the campus and students, he saw an opportunity for growth and a place to carve his own niche.
“I learned that CC was basically a sound operation but that it had been through some tough times politically. The faculty, staff and community were discouraged and wanted to regain ground lost through administrative infighting. That sounded like an interesting challenge and an opportunity to me,” he writes.
At that point, Kirk had worked as vice president at Pasadena City College, where he met his assistant and soon-to-be love, Jenny. He had aspirations to lead a college, and Centralia College seemed the perfect place to move forward — courage and confidence in hand.
With help from instructors and his fellow administrators, Kirk would turn the college around during his 16 years at the helm, between 1986 and 2002, improving the facilities and its programs. He also worked with the Centralia College Foundation and helped to establish its growing assets of more than $27 million today.
Current board President Joe Dolezal attributes the foundation’s growth to Kirk’s enthusiasm as a facilitator.
“He brings people together and he changes things,” Dolezal said. “His enthusiasm is always contagious. He gets us to do things, and all of a sudden you go home and say, ‘what did I just say I’d volunteer to do?’”
Hank Kirk only had a week of retirement before he was called to help with the University of Livingstonia project, he said. In Malawi, a land-locked, east African country of more than 18 million people, there was a hunger for secondary education, he said.
The couple went on to help establish the university, which was the third overall higher education institution established and the first Christian university ever in Malawi. Between 2002 and 2009, the couple spent six-month stretches working in the country. In 2013, the couple stepped down from the board as it found its own sustaining independence.
Hank and Jenny said they couldn’t have done it without the Lewis County community, specifically the Centralia Rotary Club and Centralia College.
“It sort of caught the imagination of people in Lewis and Thurston counties,” Hank Kirk said. “When somebody wants to do something, and when they’re excited about it and it looks important, people will rally around and help.”
Above all, family seems to have been a sticking point with Hank Kirk throughout his life. His first wife, Mattie Kirk, who he “hit it off with” his sophomore year at Nyack College, followed him and supported him throughout his cross-country pursuit to be a top educator. The couple eventually had three children. Mattie Kirk died in August 1996 due to cancer. She was an avid pianist, full-time mom and a “super cook.”
Timothy Scott Kirk, Mattie and Hank’s first child, was a graduate student who attended the University of Washington and Western Washington University who studied history. He died in 1992 at the age of 34, just before completing his master’s degree.
Jenny said Hank owes a lot to his family.
“They had a very close-knit family. This little band of warriors who are fighting for dad to get his education and get into school, and all that. They followed him all over the country,” Jenny Kirk said.
Today, Hank and Jenny Kirk live a relatively quiet life. They’re not building any new universities.
The couple attends church at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Chehalis. Hank Kirk leads a Bible study once a week, and has for the last 27 years.
He continues to lead people, not through higher education anymore, but through faith.
“Go Forward With Courage and Confidence: The World of Henry Port Kirk III” is currently in limited quantity. Only 200 paperback copies have been printed, with 50 hardcover copies on the way.
Interested readers can read one of two copies available at the Kirk Library at Centralia College.