It's hard to explain the impact James "Radio" Kennedy had on T.L. Hanna High School. For over 50 years, Radio remained a pillar of his South Carolina community, but not in the way a teacher or principal or high-profile alumni might have been. Radio was, quite simply, just Radio. A man who loved his community. A man who loved the energy of youth. A man who spread joy by being himself. A man who loved Anderson, and in return, Anderson was a better place because of him.
James Kennedy's incredible life was the focus of the 2003 Hollywood movie Radio, which starred Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Radio and Ed Harris, who played iconic head football coach Harold Jones. That movie shined a light on this small town, and the love one man brought to his community for decades.
Sadly, James "Radio" Kennedy died early Sunday morning surrounded by his family at Hospice of the Upstate after a long battle with health and kidney issues, according to a school news release. He was 73 years old.
James "Radio" Kennedy's Death
Radio's relationship with T.L. Hanna began when showed up to football practice in the 1960s, an old transistor radio held to his ear at all times, and silently watched. The quiet, mentally-challenged teenager didn't speak at first, but over time, he began to mimic the coaches' signals and shout commands.
At a time when mental disabilities were taboo and people were less-receptive to their challenges, the Anderson School District embraced Radio. He became a permanent 11th grade student -- graduating and leaving was never even an option -- and for over 50 years, he worked the high school football team's sidelines, and even led the football program onto the field for home games.
The soul of T.L. Hanna was inducted into the T.L. Hanna Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016. A statue bearing his likeness now stands outside the football field.
According to the Independent Mail, former Hanna coach Harold Jones, with whom Radio formed an eternal bond as his "daddy," volunteered around Anderson County in various ways until Radio's health issues set in.
"It was destiny that he arrived on that football field some fifty years ago," former T.L. Hanna High School Principal Sheila Hilton said in a moving tribute after Kennedy's death. "He was without a Harvard degree or Pulitzer Prize or professional football contract, but his fame surpassed all of these accolades. And the story is simple: love and compassion can change lives. It has changed his, and, in return, he has changed ours, and we are better people for having known him."
"Generations of Hanna students and faculty had an opportunity to know Radio. Everyone has a story to tell, some of them priceless -- his eating a cooler full of sandwiches that had been made for the team and stored safely on the bus; his pass-kick-and-throw half-time shows; his permanent status as a junior, with no threat of graduation; and his astounding ability to name the mascot of any team in the state. The stories could fill the pages of a lengthy book, each showing the child-like innocence and loving heart that existed within him."
"What a lesson there is to be learned here. How many lost souls could be saved with a little care and attention? The thousands of students who have made their way through the halls of T. L. Hanna over the years have seen the results of the love and caring given to Radio. He had a permanent smile on his face. He was never without his ability to shake hands and hug necks. He returned exponentially whatever love was given to him. And here the irony rests. He gave back much more than he received."
-- Sheila Hilton
James Robert "Radio" Kennedy's body will lie in state at T.L. Hanna on Friday before funeral services are held Saturday at the Civic Center in Anderson, according to the McDougald Funeral Home (via Anderson Independent Mail).
"I am sad that I will not get another handshake or hug from Radio, I am sad that I won't have the opportunity to talk to him about how we are going to win every football game and how the defense has got to get the quarterback," T.L. Hanna Principal Walter Mayfield said in an email to parents. "I take comfort and I am relieved in knowing that Radio is no longer suffering and in pain."
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