In 1966, a 10-year-old in Wise County watched an episode of “Star Trek” – the episode in which Captain Kirk is court-martialed on grounds of perjury. The evidence against him is the ship’s computer log, which recorded evidence in direct contradiction of how Kirk reported a particular incident. Spoiler alert: Spock was able to determine that the computer had been tampered with – hacked is the term we’d use now – and Kirk was cleared.
That episode made a powerful impression on the youngster in Wise County. And that’s why the Wise County Circuit Court Clerk’s office has, for nearly three decades, been at the forefront of technological innovation in both the state and the country. It’s also why that youngster – now 66 – has signed a contract with a company that promises to send him to the moon.
We’re skipping over a lot of action in between then and now, and some future date with eternity, so let’s back up and cover that ground.
The immediate news: The most famous court clerk in Virginia is retiring. This hasn’t really been a secret but Jack Kennedy made it official recently. He will not be seeking reelection next year as clerk of court in Wise County. He’d rather we not use the phrase “retiring.” From his point of view, he’s simply leaving the post and embarking on an entirely new career in a new place – the space business in Florida.
Court clerks don’t generally make the news. Kennedy has spent 28 years or more making news – first for the technological changes he’s introduced to the office, then for using his position as an elected official to advocate more broadly for the growth of a technology sector in Southwest Virginia. That’s what makes Kennedy’s impending departure, both from the office and from the state, so noteworthy.
I first met Kennedy in 1985 and it was somewhat embarrassing. I was covering Doug Wilder’s campaign for lieutenant governor for The Roanoke Times and Wilder spoke at a Democratic dinner in Wise County. Kennedy was the master of ceremonies and introduced all the dignitaries who were present. He then proceeded to do something I’d never seen – he started introducing all the out-of-town journalists. We journalists tend to prefer to sit in the back of the room unnoticed, but that was not Kennedy’s way: He named every single one of us and made us stand up to be recognized. It was my first inkling that Kennedy was someone who was not afraid to break with tradition.
I knew then that Kennedy was a political junkie from a young age – a legislative aide, a national officer for the Young Democrats, a national convention delegate at the age of 20. What I didn’t know then was that he was also a space buff. He grew up watching “Star Trek” with more enthusiasm than most of us. “I was a Trekker, not a Trekkie,” he explains. “I don’t dress up as Captain Kirk.” But that “Court Martial” episode made a powerful impression on him – he saw the intersection of law and computers. When he was 15, Kennedy went to Florida to see Apollo 14 launched to the moon, the third mission that landed on the surface. It was a heady time to be interested in space exploration. By the end of the next year, though, the moon program had been canceled by a nation that had grown bored of the adventure. Kennedy was baffled. He didn’t go into space but he did go into the law – and eventually computers.
In 1987, Kennedy challenged a Democratic incumbent, won the nomination and then the general election to the House of Delegates. This was back in the days when the coal counties still elected Democrats. In fact, in those days, the coal counties preferred Democrats, but that’s another story. In 1991, when then-state Sen. John Buchanan passed away, Kennedy ran for, and won, a state Senate seat. That didn’t last long. Population change squeezed a Senate seat out of Southwest Virginia and Kennedy wound up in a district paired with Republican incumbent William Wampler Jr. Wampler won and continued to serve for many more years. In 1995, the Wise County court clerk died; Kennedy ran in the special election to fill the remainder of the term and won. He’s been reelected ever since.
Politically, the clerkship seemed something of a consolation prize but Kennedy sure hasn’t treated it like that.
During the time between that election and when he formally took office, Kennedy read two books – simultaneously, he said. One was “The Road Ahead,” co-written by Bill Gates, a just-published book that looked at the implications of the computer age and the arrival of something called the World Wide Web that was then only a rumor to most people. The other book was a much older text by Napoleon Hill, a Wise County self-help guru from the early 1900s – his “17 principles of personal achievement.” The lessons of those two books merged together in his mind with that “Star Trek” episode from his youth: It was time to bring the computer revolution to the clerk’s office.
At a time when most people didn’t even know what the internet was, Kennedy set about trying to put court records online. “I became fascinated with knowing that technology could be taken one step further,” he told the Associated Press in 1996. “I kept thinking, why are we waiting? The technology is here now.” He quickly ran into obstacles: Attorney General Jim Gilmore ruled that he didn’t have the authority. In time, those antiquated state laws fell by the wayside. In 2000, the Wise County clerk’s office became the first in the nation to record the electronic filing of a deed. Over the years since, his office became the first to put criminal records online and to make it possible to apply for or renew concealed weapons permits online. His office is now involved in a first-in-the-nation effort to use blockchain technology to create searchable land transfer records. “People have the general conception that you can walk into a clerk’s office, push a button and have a 40-to-60 year title abstract completed and that’s not true,” he said. But in the months ahead it will be – in Wise County. For generations, clerk’s offices have dealt in paper. Kennedy sees paper as obsolete. “We’ve basically tried to look at work flow and tried to eliminate paper,” he said. “The conundrum has been the two state prisons [Red Onion and Wallens Ridge]. We can’t give inmates laptops to send their pleadings.”
While clerk, Kennedy has still found time to pursue his space passion, which will soon become more than just a passion. He obtained a master’s degree in space policy and space law, from the University of North Dakota. He jokes that many of his fellow students were Air Force officers in charge of nuclear missile silos – they have a lot of downtime in which to study, he says. Kennedy has visited the Russian spaceflight facilities (back when our relations with Russia were a little warmer than they are now). He’s attended meetings of the International Astronomical Union, the governing body for all things astronomical. Closer to home, Gov. Tim Kaine – a fellow Democrat – appointed Kennedy to the state’s commercial space flight authority trying to promote commercial space launches from Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore; Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell reappointed him. I can tell you from my experience as a journalist that you’ve never met someone from Southwest Virginia more enthusiastic about the potential of the Eastern Shore as Kennedy has been, at least where space flights are concerned. He talks up connections he’s made with space firms in Israel and South Korea that he hopes to lure to Wallops Island. Under later Democratic governors, Kennedy was named to the Virginia Aviation Board.
As clerk, Kennedy hasn’t just embraced technology in his own office, he’s made the case for why the whole of Southwest Virginia should be a technology hub. He’s pushed the region as a good place for testing drones, and helped make possible what’s called “the Kitty Hawk moment” for drones – the first commercial drone flight was in Wise County. He’s advocated for data centers (our readers in Northern Virginia who feel themselves overrun by data centers will find this unimaginable, but there are parts of rural Virginia that are begging for data centers and the jobs and tax revenue they would bring). He’s championed Elon Musk’s satellite-based Starlink internet as a good option for coalfield counties that may never see in-ground broadband fiber. He’s arranged for students from Wise County to launch experiments on space flights out of Wallops Island. Some of you may have tuned out much earlier at the mention that Kennedy is a Democrat, but those still with us here should know what Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, told me about Kennedy a few years ago when I was with The Roanoke Times: “He’s doing some great work on getting some drone companies in. He’s really doing a great job, being a great ambassador. There are no ‘D’ or ‘R’ issues – he’s a Democrat; I’m a Republican – but he’s trying to help the area.” Kennedy has taken the somnolent clerk’s office and used it as a position from which to become a quasi-economic developer.
All the while, though, Kennedy has had his eye on a longer game – and it’s not in Southwest Virginia. He bought a condo in Cape Canaveral from which he could view space launches. When another condo building went up, blocking his view, he sold the first one and bought in the new one. I can affirm that it has a great view of rocket launches. Five years ago I was in Florida and Kennedy invited me to his place to witness a satellite launch. We watched from the balcony as the rocket rose into the sky – and then watched something I found even more amazing: These days the rockets come back down and land upright (if all goes well). Kennedy intentionally didn’t tell me about something else: When those rockets come back down, they set off sonic booms that can knock you off your feet. He found that quite humorous. I did, too – once I got my breath back.
While clerk, Kennedy has developed a side hustle in Florida. His wife, Janette, has a travel agency (You Name It Vacations) that works with people coming to view rocket launches. “There’s typically a space launch at Cape Canaveral every week now,” he says. “I anticipate that will grow in number to where there are two or three a week, weather permitting.” Used to be, the only way into space was through NASA. Now space is being rapidly commercialized. Kennedy has signed on as an adviser to Celestis, a company that launches cremated remains into space. Its first flight, in 1997, carried the remains of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and ’60s activist Timothy O’Leary. When friends and family travel to the cape to watch their loved ones blasted into space, the Kennedys handle the travel arrangements. “If they have 1,000 people we handle their hotel arrangements, their food arrangements, buses to transport people,” he says. And if they want a post-flight cruise, You Name It will handle that, too.
Kennedy’s family has gravitated south, to South Carolina and Florida and, like many a grandparent, he wants to be closer to his grandchildren. So, yes, after he leaves office he’ll move full-time to Florida. But, he stresses, he’s not retiring. “I just hope I’m young enough to launch a new career,” he says. He jokes that senior citizens Joe Biden and Donald Trump have been inspirations in that regard. More seriously, “I may look for employment in the commercial sector or stick with the gig economy,” he says. Whatever that next job is, it will be aerospace-related. “I’m an orphan of Apollo,” Kennedy says. “I now hope to hand things off to my granddaughter who is part of the Artemis generation – Apollo’s sister.” (Artemis is the name of the new American moon program that aims to land the first woman on the moon.) “I was involved in the first commercial drone flight; this gives me a chance to run full circle in life,” he says.
Kennedy also has one final act planned. Celestis hopes next year to land human remains on the moon (yes, this is legal under international treaties governing space travel). Kennedy has signed the paperwork to send his own remains to the moon when the time comes. “That,” he says, “will be my final contribution to the commercial space sector.”