We’ve all heard the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar,” and some of us are privileged to even know a few. That’s how I’ve always thought of Kenny Rowlette, who until recently served as the director of the National Civil War Chaplains Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia—a museum he co-founded and tirelessly championed. Kenny passed away in late October at the age of 67.
I first met Kenny half a dozen years ago when he invited me to speak to the Lynchburg Civil War Roundtable. We struck up a friendship on that visit, and over the intervening years, he invited me back to Lynchburg several more times, both to speak at the roundtable and at Liberty University where he worked and helped promote the university’s Civil War programs. He was one of the longest-serving members on the faculty there, where he taught English for 33 years and then worked in the library on special projects.
And of course, there’s the chaplains museum he co-founded. When he asked me to serve on their advisory board, I was deeply honored. The role of chaplains tends to be undervalued in Civil War studies even though religious faith was a deeply important part of the everyday lives of so many men. The museum’s mission to highlight that work has been wonderful.
Bespectacled and butterscotch-voiced, Kenny could well have played the part of a country doctor with a calming bedside manner. He lit up when he spoke about the museum, though, sometimes so enthusiastically he would stammer to get his words out. Every acquisition was exciting. Every denomination was worth exploring and honoring.
I last spoke to Kenny just a few weeks ago. He’d invited me to speak at next spring’s Civil War Seminar at Liberty. The conference falls close to the date of my daughter’s wedding, so I wasn’t sure how busy I’d be with wedding prep at that point. “I’d consider it a personal favor to me if you could make it work,” he told me. Phrased like that, from someone I admired so much, I could not say no. Kenny was the kind of guy you didn’t want to say “no” to.
I’m glad I didn’t. “Yes” was the last thing I ended up saying to him before he died.
The Seminar won’t be the same without him, but we’ll at least have the opportunity to pay tribute to Kenny’s gentlemanly, scholarly spirit, which made the seminar possible in the first place. I’ll also make a point to stop next door at the chaplains museum, where I can pay my respects not only to the Civil War’s men of the cloth but the man who worked so tirelessly to tell their story.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell offered a fine tribute at Kenny’s memorial service. You can read excerpts from it here.