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Bernard J. ‘Bernie’ Kenyon, a beloved Mount Saint Joseph High School chemistry teacher and free spirit, dies

Bernard J. "Bernie" Kenyon received the Theodore James Ryken Award in 2005 for excellence in teaching.
Bernard J. "Bernie" Kenyon received the Theodore James Ryken Award in 2005 for excellence in teaching.

Bernard J. “Bernie” Kenyon, a much-beloved Mount Saint Joseph High School chemistry teacher and free spirit whose unconventional teaching methods bore results, died of a heart attack last Tuesday at Symphony Manor Roland Park. The Mayfield resident was 84.

“Bernie was the best chemistry teacher I ever saw. He was a Renaissance man,” said Barry J. Fitzpatrick, the school’s principal from 1994 to 2013 who brought Mr. Kenyon to the Irvington school campus.

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“His interests were not only in science, but also the arts. He was always going to New York on the weekends and encouraged the kids in artistic events,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. “He was also a social justice warrior and a devoted Catholic school educator. His match will be hard to find.”

Bernard James Kenyon, son of James Kenyon, and his wife, Norma Kenyon, was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and was raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where he graduated from Saint Raphael Academy. During the late 1940s, Mr. Kenyon was a batboy for the minor league Pawtucket Slaters, family members said.

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In 1950, he entered Christian Brothers in Tarrytown, New York. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1955 from Catholic University of America and a master’s degree from St. John’s University in New York.

He led the Christian Encounter Program in Norwalk, Connecticut, from 1969 to 1979, when he left the brotherhood. In 1982 he moved to Baltimore and fell in love with Joanna Manzo, a former Sister of Mercy.

“I first met Bernie in 1970 when he was with the Christian Encounter Program,” said David Manzo, who later would introduce him to his sister. “He was a warm, loving and adventurous man. He was a person who embraced joy every day and always had a smile on his face.”

Mr. Kenyon taught chemistry from 1989 to 1991 at Seton Keough High School, then joined the faculty of Mount Saint Joseph. He was 59 years old at the time.

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“Bernie’s classroom was on the third floor and mine was on the second,” recalled Thomas G. Hughes, who taught physics and was science department chair when Mr. Kenyon was hired.

“In my role as department chair I would observe his classes. He was very dynamic and challenged the kids for sure,” Mr. Hughes said. “The first time I saw him I knew he’d be an amazing teacher.

“He was in his 60s and he danced down those stairs like Gene Kelly,” Mr. Hughes said. “He had a tremendous amount of energy and had right up to the end. He was like the Energizer Bunny.”

There was no hiding in Mr. Kenyon’s class. He kept up a steady pace of asking questions and asking other students whether the given answer was correct.

“He was one of those guys who didn’t let you raise your hand to answer a question,” Mr. Hughes said. “He called on everybody in class.”

In his classroom, Mr. Kenyon employed his outsize personality and unconventional methods such as donning a bathing suit and snorkeling gear, costumes and masks to motivate students. Those who received the highest grade on the exam were permitted to dunk him in the classroom’s emergency shower.

Said Mr. Hughes: “He taught sophomore honors chemistry and sophomores are a tough breed. They were a challenge, and they often butted heads and then they wanted to drop the course. He’d get the parents involved and tell them their son had potential and he’d show them how to work, and then they’d come back and tell him thank you.”

Jason A. Ader, who studied chemistry and Advanced Placement chemistry under Mr. Kenyon and graduated from Mount Saint Joseph, returned to the school as a chemistry teacher in 2008.

“I was his protege and he was my mentor, and his Advanced Placement program was a goliath,” Mr. Ader said. “As a teacher, Bernie Kenyon the myth was the reality. He was demanding, had high standards, but not in an unkind way. For the first month you were in his class, you’d say to yourself, ‘This guy cares.’ He pushed you to do well and grow more.”

Because he was a sui generis teacher, he cultivated a devoted following.

“He was crazy and nuts and awesome all at the same time,” Mr. Ader said, laughing. “He told crazy jokes all the while pushing everyone to be better students and scholars. He saw things in them they didn’t see in themselves.”

Said Mr. Fitzpatrick: “He got them to believe in themselves and he was really good at it. A character is an apt designation, and his like shall not be seen again.”

Added Mr. Ader: “Scholars gravitated to Bernie and he inspired so many people. He was the cartoon chemistry teacher with the crazy hair. He was a fast-paced talker and people’s lives were changed because of this nut who had love for his students. He made an impact on so many.”

He led religious retreats at Mount Saint Joseph and instilled in every student with simple words to live by: “I am lovable.”

At his retirement party, which was attended by hundreds of former students, colleagues and friends, Mr. Kenyon amused the well-wishers by mixing chemicals and lighting flames.

“He explained to the laughter and tears of all gathered that, over time, he learned the development of the student was more important than the content of the class,” according to the family biography.

Mr. Kenyon, who received the Theodore James Ryken Award in 2005 for excellence in teaching, retired in 2013.

He volunteered at Viva House and was active in justice activities at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church and in his Mayfield neighborhood.

Mr. Kenyon enjoyed travel.

“We were in Costa Rica three years ago and [at his age] he went horseback riding,” Mr. Manzo said.

A memorial Mass will be offered at 11 a.m. Nov. 20 at his church at 740 N. Calvert St.

In addition to his brother-in-law, David Manzo, he is survived by his wife of 39 years, Joanna Manzo, a part-time Mercy Medical Center pediatric practitioner, and a nephew.

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