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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Katharine C. “Kitty” Kersey, Longtime Faculty Member and Children’s Advocate, Dies at 86

By Joe Garvey

Katharine C. "Kitty" Kersey believed in the potential of all children, regardless of their background.

"Children the world over are born with the same basic needs," she said in a 2009 story that appeared on ODU's website. "They each need a strong relationship with a significant adult who is authentic and available - who never gives up on them. When a child has at least one 'enlightened witness' in his life, he then can gain strength from that adult's trust and faith in him. Eventually he will internalize those feelings and believe in himself and his own ability to discover his natural gifts and make a meaningful contribution to the world."

Kersey, an Old Dominion University alumna who went on serve as a faculty member for 45 years, including 22 as chair of Department of Early Childhood, Speech-Language Pathology and Special Education, died on Aug. 17. She was 86.

"She was much beloved by the families and community for her wealth of knowledge and caring approach to children," said Stacie Raymer, professor in the Department of Communication Disorders and Special Education. "She was a positive, thorough and consistent leader of the Department of Early Childhood, Speech-Language Pathology and Special Education for decades. The department prospered under her leadership."

"She was a kind, generous person who believed in treating children with respect," added Sharon Raver-Lampman, an adjunct instructional faculty member of communication disorders and special education who worked with Kersey for 24 years. "She will be deeply missed by many."

Kersey joined Old Dominion as an instructor in 1969 (the same year she earned her master's in early childhood education from the University), became a professor in 1973, and served as director of the Child Study Center preschool program from 1973 to May 2008 and as director of the Child Development Center daycare program from 1994 to May 2008. She retired from the University in 2014.

"She was my professor, advisor, and mentor as I completed my Master's in Early Childhood Education and helped me start on my path to success in education," Joyce Kossman wrote in a memorial remembrance. "My husband and I were elated when she and her daughter played the guitar and sang at our wedding!"

Kersey, who earned a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Outstanding Faculty Award in 2005, was described as the "driving force" for what is now known as the Children's Learning and Research Center by its current director, Kimberly Williamson.

"She was always our biggest supporter," Williamson said, "and her model of quality child care is still a major force at the center."

In 2008, the Board of Visitors voted unanimously to name the Child Development Center and Lions Child Study Center Director's Suite in her honor and to give her the title of director emerita of the two centers.

The resolution also cited Kersey for raising more than $1 million in private gifts to match a state capital appropriation to renovate and expand the Lions Child Study Center, which provides prekindergarten and kindergarten classes.

"The expansion of the Lions Child Study Center in 1997 was a testament to the vision and recognition she garnered in the community," Raymer said.

Kersey's commitment to children's welfare and education preceded her time at ODU.

In 1965, she and her husband, Wilbur, founded the Court Street Academy in Portsmouth. The school, which was based at the Court Street Baptist Church, where Wilbur was pastor, was created to address a lack of kindergarten classes in public schools. According to its website, the original class had 13 students, with Wilbur driviing students who needed rides in his station wagon. By the mid-1980s, it had 225 students in grades K through 8 in a renovated education building, and Wilbur, who also served as the academy's principal, was transporting children in a school bus. The academy is now a preschool program.

Kersey wrote five books and produced a three-video set called "The 101s: A Guide to Positive Discipline," which earned national honors. She wrote a weekly column on parenting and childhood issues that appeared for 12 years in The Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star, the Roanoke Times and other papers. She was also regularly interviewed on local television about issues pertaining to children.

"In addition to her contributions to ODU, Kitty made significant contributions to the early childhood profession through her teaching, scholarly activities and community outreach programs," said Jonna Bobzien, associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication Disorders and Special Education. "The entire CDSE faculty and the staff of the CLRC will miss Kitty tremendously, but we know the contributions that she made to our programs, ODU and the profession will continue to impact early childhood education for decades to come."

Kersey was predeceased by her older brothers, James Essex Clark (Jim) and Edward Thomas Clark (Ed). She is survived by Wilbur, her husband of nearly 65 years; her daughter, Dr. Barbara Kersey (David Steinhauer); her sons, David and Marc (Kristina); and her grandchildren: Hannah and Ben Steinhauer, Kellen and Keaton Kersey.

The family is planning a "Celebration of Life" honoring Kersey at 2 p.m. Sept. 18 at Court Street Academy, 447 Court St., Portsmouth. Please RSVP using this link.

You can view a livestream of the service at this link.

Donations in lieu of flowers may be made to the Court Street Baptist Church Endowment Fund.

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