By Jesse Seidel
January 31st marked the celebration of the 90th birthday of William Kennedy, as well as, the 35th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute that he founded. Professors, students, and avid fans of literature showed up in droves at Albany’s City Hall for the celebration.
The event was kicked off by a short speech by Mayor Kathy Sheehan introducing us to William Kennedy’s history as an Irishman growing up in Northern Albany and how he came back after a few years of not living here to put the literary culture of Albany on the map. Mayor Sheehan even gave the honored celebrant a pocket notebook in exchange for being described in one of his future books as a ‘Political Wizard’, a ‘Fearless Nobody’, or a ‘Daring Ethnic’ as these character tropes are prevalent in his books.
This was followed by several noted politicians such as Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, and Holly William who was there in the stead of another congressman, as well as neighbors, colleagues, and friends that share an Irish heritage talking about how they met William Kennedy. The gathered were also informed or reminded of William Kennedy’s humble beginnings as an intrepid reporter trying to root out corruption in Albany. It was during this calvalcade of congressional compatriots that we found out that the Writer’s Institute that Kennedy helped found raised $110,000, overshooting their $90,000 goal (chosen as a nod to William Kennedy’s 90th birthday) by nearly 20%.
We were then treated to a short video of various people wishing him a happy birthday and a long life including his grandkids, people mentored by him, people who benefitted from the Writer’s Institute and even well known actor Mark Ruffalo. Members of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild were in attendance and treated the audience to a reading of Kennedy’s book ‘Roscoe’ which was a truly witty excerpt, followed by a performance by Albany Pro Musica, whose evocative performance left one wanting for more.
Finally, William Kennedy himself closed the ceremony, admitting that with his holding three keys to the city that Albany should probably have changed its locks by now. He then told his gathered admirers how he grew up in Albany and why he started the Writer’s Institute. His goal was to give beginning, unknown writers (such as he once was) a place they could ask the seasoned veterans of publishing the questions he had had such as, “What am I doing wrong?”, and they could be given the advice that is needed, even if it isn’t the advice that is wanted.
I, personally, greatly enjoyed the event, despite the close quarters. Although, that just goes to show the fervor Albany has for one man who has worked to put the city on the map in the realm of writing and the arts. Hearing William Kennedy speak so passionately about author’s humble beginnings, combined with the spark of wit in him that has survived nearly a century, and the story of his own slow start should push people to write more and hope for the best with their writing – I know that it has inspired me as an undergraduate to keep writing. Thank you to William Kennedy and the New York State Writers Institute for all you do to encourage unseasoned and advanced writer’s alike.