Michele Kennedy, accidental designer, on Maury Povich and finding self-confidence
Lunch with: Conversations with interesting people in Kawartha Lakes
No sooner has Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun started up when Michele Kennedy walks through the door. I try to read the tea leaves on that one but come up short. I have no idea if this interview will be enjoyable for her, considering she almost turned me down.
The 57-year-old architectural designer is on time at The Pie Eyed Monk, her striking, reddish-auburn hair her most defining feature — not unlike that of a Jersey cow. (The only reason I feel empowered, as a man, to make such a comparison is because Jersey is her official nickname.)
“It’s challenging to talk about yourself,” she says, admitting her first instinct was to reject the idea of talking about herself publicly. She orders a gin and tonic and so I join her with a cream ale.
“I struggled with self-confidence my whole life, so to do something like this is a big deal for me.”
Kennedy is concerned her life will sound like “an episode of Maury Povich.”
That’s when I decide to start off with an easy question — ”Where were you born?” — so I can ease her into the process.
Perhaps that was an error if I was going for easy.
As it turns out, she was born in Toronto to a mother who was pregnant but unmarried —not ideal in 1960s Little Britain, especially since her dad was a minister. Her mom was sent to a home in Toronto for unwed mothers, where she gave birth and put Kennedy up for adoption.
Her mother was in nursing school when the pregnancy and subsequent birth derailed her education plans.
Here’s where Maury Povich vibes come in, according to Kennedy.
About two days after Kennedy was born, her mother was talking to the nurses. They had taken her baby away right after it was born, which was customary at the time when an adoption was chosen.
But these particular nurses wanted to give the young mother a chance to see her newborn and sneaked her into the nursery. After seeing her infant, Kennedy’s mother she called her sister and pleaded with her for her help, so she could bring baby Michele home. Her sister, Jackie, was more established —a married teacher with two kids of her own — and agreed to the arrangement.
“Mom cancelled the adoption, took me to her house and raised me there while my aunt could do her teaching,” says Kennedy, eyes welling up.
Her mother and father did get married two years later. Kennedy grew up on a dairy farm in the village and found she loved the community spirit that she believes especially infused Little Britain in the 1960s and 70s.
Kennedy said they were relatively poor, not being able to take family vacations or have fancy clothes. It was those “little things you judge yourself on,” she said, returning to the self-confidence theme.
However, in retrospect she believes her childhood was better off forsaking Disney World for frequent picnics in the park, snowmobiling and community sports. “I know now it’s the small, local things that really matter.”
Our server takes our order. It’s a mushroom pizza for Kennedy and a half-size grilled cheese, bowl of corn chowder soup and a garden salad for me.
“Even as a kid I had a hard time eating animals,” she says, referring to her vegetarian choice. She said she has never eaten a chicken wing or leg in her life, although she’d eat a hamburger when she was a kid, mainly because the burger “doesn’t look like any particular part of the animal.”
Her dairy farm upbringing meant she spent a lot of time with the reddish-brown cows and people soon started calling her Jersey.
“I hated having red hair growing up — it was one more thing that affected my self-confidence. Now I have hairdressers ask me what ‘number’ my hair is,” referring to dye.
Kennedy was a Mariposa Elementary School grad, then went on to LCVI. She had no interest in high school and didn’t excel academically. Kennedy found the social scene at school — especially “judgmental girls” her own age — made it a difficult time.
Her average marks affected her self-esteem and so she never went to university, assuming she would not succeed. “To me, that was for the smart people. In high school I passed but didn’t excel,” even though she was on an enriched track, which was a university pathway at the time.
Not getting a diploma or degree has “bothered me my whole life.”
I point out she has still managed to have a successful career as an architectural designer, and she said that came from “determination,” given her life circumstances.
In her 30s Kennedy was a mail carrier for Canada Post. But a subsequent car accident meant she couldn’t deliver mail any longer and she had to find something else to do, given she was a single parent.
“I had three kids to feed and I wondered what I was going to do.”
That’s when she took a half-year AutoCAD program – essentially computer-aided design and drafting software — through Fleming College. After getting this certification she stumbled upon an advertisement from a company looking for someone to help design dairy milking systems.
“I went right over and told them my nickname was Jersey, and that I had just finished the AutoCAD program,” she says.
They hired her right away and it seemed apt that Jersey’s first job with her new certification would be designing milking systems for a dairy barn.
Kennedy began working with the engineers and learning from them. She took home and studied every drawing she could find.
With that experience under her belt she later applied to Viceroy Homes. The company hired her immediately; she learned to ask a lot of questions early on and then had a decade-long career with the home builder.
“But in my mind I kept thinking I’d save money and go to school and get a real job,” she recalls, because the position didn’t pay as much as she felt she needed to earn.
As our food arrives, she says it took her a long time to be clear in her mind that this was a genuine career. “I finally started enjoying it when I realized I didn’t have time to go to school.”
In January 2017, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. Her cousin, an animal welfare activist, met a woman in Thailand. The two of them operate numerous elephant sanctuaries and he pushed Kennedy to come over for an extended visit.
At the time she wanted to leave a lot of relationship and family turmoil behind and took them up on their offer. She spent a month in the northern part of the Asian nation, calling it “heavenly” in the secluded mountains.
“It was so lovely to be around so many like-minded people.” She fed the numerous animals at the sanctuary each day and helped with other chores.
When she came back to Canada, she was rested, had reflected a great deal, and was ready to strike out on her own as an architectural designer.
Her business – Kenwood Drafting and Design — steadily grew and then COVID hit — and then the business grew more. People were leaving the city and planning their new homes or upgrading their cottages.
As her business hits its stride, she feels now she’s “just starting to live while people around me are retiring.”
Her three kids are all doing well. One daughter owns her own home daycare business. Another daughter is a nurse and her son is in the Canadian Armed Forces. She spends lots of time with her grandkids who keep her busy, which she finds fulfilling.
Over the years Kennedy read a lot of self-help books and took some Tony Robbins courses. “I don’t tell myself anymore that I’m uneducated or not good enough. I’ve had to change the reel that used to play in my head.”
This architectural designer may not have chosen to fashion her life exactly the way it unfolded, but in the end, she’s finally at peace knowing along the way she built something worthwhile not only for her family, but for herself, too.
With her kids fully launched, she says, life feels lighter. And just as the song promised when she walked in, she admits she might even be ready to have a little more fun.