For a formal biographical sketch, click here.
Here is an informal biographical sketch, mostly about Kent’s early years.
An Informal Biographical Sketch Mostly about the Early Years
Kent was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a Marine Corps officer. Because his father was often transferred to new duty posts, Kent and his sisters Mona and Melanie grew up in Nebraska, California, Virginia, Rhode Island, and finally Hawaii.
Kent went to nine schools in 12 years. “We moved almost every summer,” he said. “It was usually a move from one coast to the other. By the time I was 14, I had crossed the country by car nine times. We took a month and drove the whole way, taking a different route each time. We visited natural wonders and historic places. It was an incredible education. Visiting and living in different parts of the country taught me that we are one nation but we have many subcultures.”
Kent discovered the joy of reading when he was in first grade, got his first taste of leadership as a student council member in the third grade, and became excited about writing when he was in the fifth grade. He gave his first formal public speech at an Optimist Club in Honolulu when he was 14. Mrs. Tommy Harvey, a volunteer speech coach, brought Kent out of his shell and launched his speaking career. Kent graduated from Roosevelt High School in Hawaii in 1966. He was student body president and president of the Honolulu High School Association, which consisted of the student body presidents of the other Honolulu schools.
While Kent has held many jobs and has been involved in many activities during his career, he has continued to speak, write, and lead. He has presented more than 1,200 speeches, workshops, and conference papers in 13 countries; published newspaper articles, law review articles, poetry, and a dozen short books which have sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide; and served as a leader in public, private, nonprofit, and academic organizations.
Kent grew up listening to Broadway musicals that his parents enjoyed— Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, Finian’s Rainbow, Sound of Music, Wonderful Town, and The King and I . When he was in the sixth grade, Kent’s parents bought a large collection of classical music. “I came home during lunch hour and listened to classical music every day,” Kent recalled. His favorites included Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
In the seventh grade, Kent’s father signed him up with the Junior Rifle Club at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base. “I wasn’t athletic,” he recalls, “so riflery was perfect. It was the anti-sport sport, because it wasn’t about moving around, it was about staying very still. I was pretty good at staying very still.” He worked his way up through Expert Rifleman and was working on his Distinguished Rifleman medal when his father was transferred. Years later, as a freshman at Harvard, he joined the college’s rifle team. “The rifle range was far from campus, and there were only a few of us guys on the team,” he recalls. “One day it occurred to us that since there were no girls on the team, it wasn’t helping our social life, so we should do something else instead.”
In the seventh grade he took piano lessons as a foundation for taking up the clarinet in the eighth grade. The clarinet became a big part of his life in the ninth grade at Stevenson Intermediate School. His ninth grade band director, Jim Uyeda, was a demanding, inspiring, caring teacher who became a lifelong friend and mentor to Kent. “During my ninth grade year, I played the clarinet about four hours a day,” Kent recalls. “I practiced before school, during school, and after school.” He continued under a different band director in high school, playing clarinet in both the band and the orchestra. He also sang in the Central Union Church Youth Choir. The choir director began to give Kent solos to perform with the choir, including arias from Handel’s Messiah and Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Kent was the only boy to win a gold medal for voice in a statewide music competition in 1966. He sang the aria “Madamina” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
At Harvard, Kent earned a B.A. in American Government. He sang for a year in the Harvard University Choir, worked for a year and a half at the Harvard Student Agencies Publishing Division, and spent his last year and a half reading and writing poetry. He traveled around the country giving speeches at high schools and student council conventions, and wrote three booklets for high school student council leaders and advisers. The first booklet, The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council, included the Paradoxical Commandments.
As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Kent earned an M.A. in Philosophy and Politics. In addition to studying, he sang in the Oriel College Evensong choir, and tried rowing in an eight for the first time. “I remember being in a boat race in which there were 110 boats lined up on the river, and my boat was the last one, number 110. We were rated the worst boat on the river, but it was okay— we had a lot of fun.” He also enjoyed dinner-debate meetings of the Oriel Society, during which a frivolous issue was debated after imbibing more than the usual amount of wine.
For example: “Resolved, that Christopher Columbus went too far.” Kent argued that actually, he didn’t go far enough, since he only discovered Hispaniola, not the American mainland.
After two years at Oxford, the Rhodes Trust granted Kent a third year of scholarship support to study in Japan. Kent traveled to Japan by crossing the Soviet Union, touring Moscow and then flying to Irkutsk to board the Trans-Siberian Railway, which he rode for four days to the port of Nakhodka on the Sea of Japan. “The Cold War was still going, so the Soviet Union was a little scary, especially because I was traveling alone,” Kent says. Once in the country, the Soviets kept demanding that he pay additional charges, presumably because they wanted his foreign currency. “I almost didn’t make it across the country,” he recalls. “At the airport in Moscow, I was one ruble short of the baggage fee, and the plane was about to leave without me. A Soviet pilot I had never met before gave me a ruble, and I made the flight. Without his generosity, I might have ended up languishing indefinitely in a jail in Moscow. That kind of thing happened in those days.”
Kent earned a Certificate in Japanese after studying for a year at the Institute of Language Teaching at Waseda University, and then stayed in Japan a second year to study at a Japanese language conversation school. The most important thing that happened was that he met his future wife, Elizabeth Carlson, when he rented an upstairs apartment from her family in 1972. Four years later, Kent and Elizabeth were married in Honolulu. Kent earned his law degree and Elizabeth earned her B.A. in French and Japanese from the University of Hawaii in 1977. During her career, Elizabeth has been an interpreter, translator, foreign correspondent, radio program host, university lecturer, and college Vice-Chancellor. Her Ph.D. is in Japanese Literature. Kent and Elizabeth have three grown children. “Elizabeth is the love of my life,” Kent says. “Being married to her has been a huge blessing.” One of their shared interests is traveling. For example, during the three years they were based in Singapore, Elizabeth made sure that they traveled to a nearby country almost every month. “We enjoyed it immensely,” Kent says.
Looking back, Kent admits that he extended his adolescence as long as possible. “I was 29 when I finally took my first full-time job,” he notes. During his career, Kent has been an attorney, state government official, high tech park developer, university president (twice), YMCA executive, and CEO of a nonprofit organization (twice). With Elizabeth’s support, he went back to school and earned his doctorate in higher education leadership from the University of Southern California in 1996. “One of my specialties was leading turn-arounds at institutions that were failing but had great missions and values and deserved to survive,” he says. “Our teams succeeded in giving those institutions a new future.” Kent retired from full-time work in 2020. More information about Elizabeth and Kent’s careers is available at www.carlsonkeith.com.
“When I was in the eighth grade, one of my teachers told us that we students needed to decide what we were going to be when we grew up,” Kent recalls. “I thought that age 13 was a little early to be making a decision like that. However, I had to tell her something, so I told her that I wanted to either be a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service or be a Christian minister. I didn’t become either, but I did end up living a total of seven years in foreign countries—England, Japan, and Singapore— and I also ended up as the president of two religious universities, one of which prepared students for the ministry. Perhaps her question wasn’t as premature as I thought at the time.”