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A passion for preserving the past makes Morehead City's
Rodney Kemp a top North Carolina historian, educator, and storyteller

When Rodney Kemp was named North Carolina Historian of the Year in 2003, he was really rewarded for decades of telling lies! Kemp is what old-timers in the Morehead City area call a “fish house liar,” delivering dozens of time-worn history-based stories that actually contain many truths.

The Historian of the Year award is presented annually by the North Carolina Society of Historians. The society’s main activities are the promotion of works by historians, genealogists, archaeologists, and preservationists. Rodney Kemp couldn’t have been a better recipient. Although his stories may be embellished, they capture the voices and experiences that characterize generations of coastal Tar Heels.

Kemp’s involvement with the Carteret County Museum of History and Art (now simply known as “The History Place”) is a perfect example of why he was named North Carolina Historian of the Year. The once small museum was originally located in the local community college’s church building, but a growing collection and interest in county history led locals like Kemp, along with lots of other volunteers and sponsors, to find and fund a new location.

Once a supermarket, the facility that now houses The History Place just happens to be located right next door to Kemp’s office, where he works in insurance. This proximity makes it quite convenient for Kemp to head over to the museum for “Fridays with Rodney.”

These popular one-hour lunchtime storytelling presentations take place on 18 Fridays a year, with Kemp covering a different topic each time and lots of long-time locals, new residents, and area visitors in attendance.

“We started them in January, 2001, right after the museum had opened the previous November. I honestly expected a dozen or so people, in that we really hadn’t publicized it, but we had more than 100 people that first time. We now average 100-200!”

So to Speak

Kemp was born in Tennessee, but raised in Morehead City. When the family gathered for supper each evening, Kemp’s father told stories and his mother recited poems she liked to collect. Kemp especially liked hearing stories about Carteret County and, specifically, an area locals still call “Down East” (which is the easternmost region part of this pretty coastal county). They also spent time discussing the delivery of stories and poetry.

Kemp can still remember being forced to recite a poem in front of his seventh grade class. “I guess that was the start of my speaking career, come to think of it.”

He graduated from Morehead City High School in 1964 and then attended High Point College in the 60s. He later graduated from Texas Tech University with a degree in journalism and minors in English and history. Both the major and minors would serve him well when he began telling stories in front of a crowd.

Kemp taught in elementary and high school for almost 15 years, including almost a decade of teaching local history to ninth graders at Carteret West High School. This laid the groundwork for public speaking and storytelling. Kemp says, “If you can keep ninth graders interested in your stories, you can keep anyone interested.”

In 1983, he began his insurance career in Carteret County. He then ran an agency in Wilmington from 1985 to 1988, before returning to his beloved Morehead City in 1989 to join the insurance agency, Chalk & Gibbs, where he's been ever since.

While in Wilmington, Kemp was writing an insurance policy for a local woman named May Craven. He learned she was a well-respected motivational speaker and, after Kemp saw her in action, he decided he could do something similar. For many years, he gave motivational speeches to a wide variety of audiences.

“I enjoy speaking, in that I honestly miss the classroom atmosphere at times,” says Kemp in a voice that’s obviously honed for public speaking. “I try to personalize and localize all of my stories, which keeps the audience’s attention.”

Bending a Few Yarns

Kemp speaks to about five Elderhostel groups a year and calls those presentations, along with his visits to fourth-grade classrooms, his acid test for new material. “The Elderhostel attendees don’t know me before I meet them and you can immediately get feedback about whether or not a story works. And those fourth-graders will quickly let you know they’re bored.”

Kemp now has seven main presentations, with his most popular series of stories called ‘Gentle on My Mind.’ “There are about 20 tales in that presentation and they all rest easy on the brain,” he says.

“Most everyone is waiting to laugh or cry and I like my stories to do one of these two things,” says Kemp. “We can get the punch lines, but we need to create the stories.”

Kemp doesn’t consider himself a natural speaker, though you wouldn’t know it when you watch him in front of groups. “I have to work very hard at it,” he admits. “Every presentation is scripted and practiced. That journalism major comes in handy when it comes to writing the stories. Along with May Craven back in Wilmington, Lewis Grizzard and Garrison Keillor are my main mentors.”

Kemp has averaged 100-150 presentations each year since 1990. “My family is obviously understanding of the time this takes. Chalk & Gibbs has always been quite supportive as well.”

Locals--and even my children--will hear someone else try to repeat a story I’ve told,” Kemp says. “They’ll then come to me and ask me to tell it again.”

During the North Carolina Seafood Festival each fall (October 1-3 this year), Kemp and another local storyteller, Sonny Williamson, team up and try to “out lie” each other in a “Fish House Liars” session. It’s become a popular part of the Festival with veteran attendees.

Kemp’s work for The History Place, along with the state award, led to the museaum establishing a Rodney B. Kemp Gallery in his honor. Along with information about Kemp and the award, the gallery will eventually present lots of local history--and maybe a few fish house lies!