I welcome the opportunity to write a few words about the career of Professor Lawrence D. Kessler who died at his home near Wilmington on August 10. From my first day on campus in the fall of 1975 I was fortunate to work closely with Larry. He was a wonderful colleague and friend. He was always supportive, willing to listen to any concerns, and ready to give helpful advice.
Larry’s long and distinguished career as a professor of East Asian and Chinese history at UNC began in 1966. He arrived in Chapel Hill as the sole specialist in Asian history and taught in the Department of History for more than three decades. His first few years coincided with a tumultuous period of dissent at the University. Larry actively participated in protests against the Vietnam War and in 1969 demonstrations in support of striking food workers at Lenoir Hall. The latter event prompted Governor Bob Scott to deploy the National Guard on campus. During these demonstrations Larry was arrested twice.
After completing his doctoral dissertation and receiving his Ph.D. in 1969, Larry published two books and numerous articles. His first monograph examined the early reign of the powerful K’ang-hsi (Gangxi) Emperor who ruled China from 1654 to 1722. His second book, The Jiangyin Mission Station: An American Missionary Community in China, 1895-1951, focused on the history of a Christian mission near Shanghai established by the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington.
Larry worked tirelessly to promote Asian Studies on campus, in the Research Triangle, and across North Carolina and the Southeast. He was a driving force in the creation of a major in Asian Studies at UNC through the establishment of the Curriculum in East Asian Studies in the late 1970s, when perhaps a half-dozen specialists on Asia taught in various disciplines on campus. This academic unit later became the Curriculum in Asian Studies, for which he served as chair in the late 1990s, and it is now the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Larry was a founding member of the Triangle East Asian Colloquium, which has for decades sponsored conferences and presentations pertaining to East Asia for faculty members at universities and colleges in the local area. In addition, Larry was dedicated to spreading knowledge and understanding about China and Asia beyond the academy to the broader community. He energetically organized and participated in outreach programs to help K-12 teachers incorporate material about Asia into their lesson plans. Not surprisingly, he leapt at the chance to be among the first American academics to visit China in 1976 as the People’s Republic began to welcome foreign visitors. He then became the director of the North Carolina China Council, an affiliate of the national Asia Society, which focused on spreading knowledge about China. One particularly innovative project was Larry’s assembling a traveling exhibit of photographs and recollections, “North Carolina’s ‘China Connection,’ 1840-1949,” that toured the state in 1980-1981 to explain the range of historical links, including the tobacco trade and missionary ties, between North Carolina and China. Larry also served terms as president of the Southeast Conference of the Association for Asian Studies and as editor of the Southeast Review of Asian Studies.
These achievements suggest how much we all owe to Larry’s pioneering and sustained endeavors on behalf of Asian Studies at Carolina.