From the late 1960s to the early 2000s, in the weeks leading up to class registration at Carolina, a piece of advice was whispered through generations of Tar Heels, like the quiet sharing of a family’s secret recipe. To the student planning the upcoming semester, this advice may have come from a friend or older sibling — or in the later years, even from a parent.
It went something like this: Find out what class English professor Kimball King will teach next semester and enroll in it.
For John Preyer ’90, it was a friend who shared the “take the class” advice. Preyer initially resisted, protesting that he was a political science major with no use for 20th-century British theater.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to read a bunch of British plays,’” Preyer recalled. “My friend said, ‘Just trust me, you’re going to love him.’ The class was full by the time I registered, but Kimball ended up making a spot for me — and that changed my life.”
Cultivating love of literature
Arriving at Greenlaw Hall each morning dressed neatly in a jacket and tie, King carried himself with a look and manner that suggested the Ivy League style of his hometown of Princeton, New Jersey. A student wandering into his class for the first time might mistakenly expect a more traditional approach to teaching, a professor intent on imparting his own considerable knowledge while spending no time cultivating enjoyment of or connection with the material.
But King’s teaching style was precisely the opposite of that. For King, personal responses to art and literature were all that mattered. Students adored King for his approachability, for his interest in their literary tastes and for his insistence that great works of literature were created to fill human beings just like them with feelings that were worthy of deep exploration.
A group of former students are now fundraising to create an endowed professorship in honor of King, who died in 2019. With more gifts, the Dr. J. Kimball King Distinguished Professorship will support a faculty member whose teaching and scholarship cultivate appreciation of and deeper connection with literature.
King also led summer trips to London for 25 years, helping more than 1,000 students discover the power of productions at the city’s many world-class theaters. The list of plays ranged from Shakespeare classics to avant-garde productions by contemporary playwrights.
King was well-known and respected among many luminaries of modern theater. On one London trip, Brandon Lowery ’99 recalled seeing a production of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” soon after the film “Shakespeare in Love” had catapulted Stoppard to a new level of fame. Stoppard was there that night and came over to greet King, who insisted on an impromptu discussion with his students. Other students remembered meetings and discussions with writers and actors including Sam Shepard, David Mamet and John Malkovich.
‘He would be very proud’
King’s son Scott said that the movement to create an endowed professorship is the ideal way to honor his father.
“We would love to see his name live on in association with the University he devoted his life to, and he would be very proud of that as well,” he said. “He was very committed to teaching, and his hope was always that he could help people appreciate the range of great writing and drama and art out there in the world.”
To support King’s legacy of teaching excellence, make a gift to the Dr. J. Kimball King Distinguished Professorship Fund.