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NYSWI Founder William Kennedy Receives University Medallion

By Angelina Ochoa | April 29, 2024

William Kennedy, founder of the New York State Writers Institute (NYSWI), has recently received the Medallion of the University at Albany, which is the highest honor the university can bestow. Kennedy received it for his contributions to both UAlbany and the community in early April. 

As stated in a press release, receiving the Medallion of the University indicates a deep recognition from the UAlbany community for an individual who has displayed enormous pride in service and leadership. Grantees must display a deep passion for academic excellence in conjunction with cultural resonance, exemplifying the goals higher education strives to achieve in all of the communities it represents. 

The reason for Kennedy’s selection involved his hard work in making Albany a focal point for literary and creative genius, as well as his leadership role as the executive director and founder of the NYSWI.

The NYSWI works to celebrate literary culture and recognize the importance it holds in our school community. The program offers different events to explore the sphere of reading and writing, including craft talks, author Q&A’s, and classic film series. A staple of the institute is that of the Albany Book and Film Festival, with all events being open to the public and free of cost.

Kennedy was born in 1928 and is from the city of Albany. He graduated from Siena College in 1949. He then went on to pursue a versatile profession in journalism. According to the Historic Albany Foundation (HAF), Kennedy served time in the armed forces, simultaneously writing for the Army newspaper while being stationed in Europe. Following his time in the military, Kennedy went on to be an investigative reporter for the Times Union. Starting in 1956, Kennedy spent time in Puerto Rico where he went on to write for the San Juan Star, where he went on to become a managing editor. As pointed out in The Daily Gazette, Kennedy both met and married his wife, Dana Sosa, while residing on the island. The two remained a couple until her death in 2023.

While definitely living the life of what seems like a profound traveler, Kennedy’s pride for his hometown was the sole drive for eight of his novels, which are all set in Albany. As reported by the HAF, these novels of Kennedy’s have come to be recognized as The Albany Cycle, which sheds light on the concept of the Albany Democratic Machine and its sole players. The Daily Gazette reports that three books from this collection emerged as the Albany Trio: “Ironweed," “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game," and “Legs." “Ironweed” received a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1984. 

Kennedy has additionally been the recipient of the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award in 2001 as well as the Fitzgerald Award for Achievement in American Literature in 2007. Kennedy was also awarded a Regents Medal of Excellence from the State University of New York as well as the New York State Governor’s Arts Award.

Prior to receiving the Pulitzer Prize, Kennedy had also received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship on Jan. 16, 1983. NYSWI has stated that the amount of the award totaled to $264,000. Upon receiving this sum, Kennedy designated a portion of it to found the institute. Late Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who was also a recipient of the Medallion, backed the proper legislation of the institute’s founding, compounded with a yearly set of funds amounting to $100,000 with the sole purpose of hosting a variety of literary and cultural events. 

Kennedy also made his mark on the university through his career as a lecturer, where he taught creative writing and journalism for eight years. He became a full-fledged professor in 1983, and also was a visiting professor at Cornell University during the 1982-83 school year where he taught writing.

Paul Grondahl, director of the NYSWI, spoke on his experience both in working in the Institute and the impact Kennedy has had on not only himself but on the UAlbany community as a whole.

Grondahl recounted that Kennedy was a mentor for all and always looking to help, whether it be reading over prospective work and giving suggestions, or providing recommendation letters. In regards to Kennedy’s niche topic of Albany in his work, Grondahl remarked that, “When he came back and started writing about Albany, he hit a bigger gear and saw that Albany was an amazing city with 400 years of history, where he could push his imagination as a fictional writer.”

Reflecting on Kennedy’s ceremony, Grondahl stated, “I felt great pride standing up next to Will, my mentor and the first person I met at UAlbany in 1981 as he received the University Medallion. He has devoted five decades to advancing literature and writing at UAlbany by creating the Writers Institute, so this was a most fitting honor.”

The NYSWI continues to serve the Albany community today with Kennedy serving as Founder and Executive. The institute says that it continues to “explore and teach the writing craft; to celebrate diverse voices in all genres; to honor the power of literature as a force for individual growth and social good; and to foster a vibrant community of readers and writers who engage in meaningful dialogue.”


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