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A Legacy to Further Peace and Justice

Susan and Gerald, BE’71, JD’86, Kirksey

Susan and Gerald, BE’71, JD’86, Kirksey have a long history of engagement with Vanderbilt. After a first career as an engineer and contractor, Gerald returned to Vanderbilt Law School for his law degree. “I am a beneficiary of second, third and fourth chances given to me by Vanderbilt,” he laughs. “I can never repay what Vanderbilt has given me and the people there who believed in me.” 

Longtime donors to the School of Engineering and Vanderbilt Law School, the Kirkseys became members of Schola Prophetarum, the Divinity School’s giving society, when Joe Pennel, their former pastor, became a Divinity School professor. “We are very involved in peace with justice, including racial justice, initiatives,” Gerald says. “Vanderbilt Divinity School is not only a place where ministers are trained; many graduates also go on to work in nonprofits that are advancing these principles.” The Kirkseys recently updated their retirement plan beneficiary designations and documented a generous estate gift that will ultimately support the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University, a cross-disciplinary initiative housed in the Divinity School.

“Reverend Lawson is a god in the civil rights movement,” Gerald says. “Unfortunately, a lot of the younger generation don’t know his name, and they should. His story and the stories of civil rights leaders who literally put their lives on the line — and still do — need to be told.” The Kirkseys’ bequest will help the institute tell that story and encourage others to follow Reverend Lawson’s teachings to make the world a more equitable, peaceful place. 

This is work the Kirkseys are deeply committed to in their own lives. When Gerald retired at the end of 2016, he began volunteering at Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, North Carolina, where the couple has a second home. There, he provided pro bono legal assistance to individuals and families at risk of deportation and family separation. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and Susan quickly shifted gears to coordinate with the nonprofit organization MANNA FoodBank — serving hundreds of families in the Asheville area each month. The Kirkseys continue to volunteer for free MANNA Community Markets as well as voter registration, COVID-19 and flu vaccine pop-ups, providing books to children and diaper distribution. 

Gerald says that supporting the work of the James Lawson Institute “fits well with where I ended up in my retirement.” He adds, “I am very inspired by the leadership at Vanderbilt. The university is in a great place to make a positive impact in a global arena.”

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