Commentary

Shaffer: He was born in Tryon Palace barn, proud of it

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 26, 2013 

Bob Kennel of Holly Springs and his wife Elaine. Kennel, 77, is believed to be the only living person born in Tryon Palace in New Bern. His parents rented an apartment in the stable house, which had survived the 18th century fire and predated the reconstructed palace that now stands.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

— In a life cluttered with distinctions, Bob Kennel can boast about being a straight-A student in nuclear engineering, a three-sport athlete at N.C. State University, an almost-made-it catcher for the Baltimore Orioles and the patent-holder for Kevlar bulletproof underwear.

But at age 77, Kennel owns one earmark that outperforms the rest for bragging rights – a trait so rare that nobody else on Earth can claim it.

Bob Kennel, son of Phil and Nora, onetime valedictorian of New Bern High School, stakes a claim as the only living human being to be born in Tryon Palace, the colossal colonial mansion where our royal governors once sipped claret, raising taxes for fun.

To be precise, Kennel got his start in the palace horse stable – the only structure to survive the fire of 1798 and persist into the 20th century.

Kennel’s colonial digs weren’t exactly fit for royalty in 1936. He and his parents shared a three-room apartment and hung their wet laundry in the living room. But it’s still a talking point, and Kennel wouldn’t mind someone hanging a brass plaque on the door to mark the spot.

Ask former Gov. Jim Hunt. Kennel’s been bugging him about it since 1982 – jokingly calling the plaque a campaign promise gone undelivered.

“No plaque, but it’s a jocular thing,” said Kennel, gently needling his former governor and Wolfpack classmate. “The truth is that apartment is an open hayloft now. There is no door to put a plaque on. But I still get my jollies.”

Kennel has no memory of living in New Bern’s most famous address, which the Kennels rented for $9 a month and where young Bob entered the world for a $43 doctor’s home-delivery fee. He was only 2 when the family vacated its squarish brick apartment in the stables, the rent having risen to $9.50.

He didn’t grow up proud that he’d sat, slept and rubbed his toddler hands all over history. With the Depression raging, followed by World War II, New Bern’s mind had temporarily strayed from its colonial past.

Even in the 1950s, when the lavish modern replica of Tryon Palace was being built, Kennel didn’t pay much mind. He was too busy playing Wolfpack basketball for Everett Case, and Wolfpack football for Earle Edwards, and Wolfpack baseball for Vic Sorrell.

They called him “Slide Rule” in those days, or “The Brain.”

The reputation stuck firmly enough that he turned down the Orioles in 1957 to finish up at State, ending up a professional engineer and high-tech tinkerer.

But he never forgot his historic birthplace, and in chatting with Hunt over lunch in 1982, he first scored a promise for the plaque at Tryon Palace, honoring his mother.

He reminded the governor a decade later, after his first two terms. To Kennel’s recollection, Hunt pursed his lips and asked, “Did I really make that promise?” Reminded of it, he pledged to seek another term and fulfill the oath.

But after two more terms, the plaque never materialized. As a consolation prize, Kennel, by then a retiree in Holly Springs, got into the Order of the Longleaf Pine, instead.

I couldn’t get Hunt on the phone over the last few days, so I can’t provide an official explanation.

But these days, when Kennel visits the reconstructed palace in his hometown, with its new museum attached, the staff treat him like royalty.

And in a way he is: the only living man ushered into North Carolina in the halls intended only for the plushest lives.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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