Friends and family remember Kenneth Speirs as “a gift to the students” — a professor who encouraged creativity and instilled confidence in his students.
The UC Berkeley English lecturer died Dec. 11 due to complications resulting from a sudden heart attack he suffered while running the Berkeley Half Marathon in late November. He was 49.
Days after his collapse, letters from more than 50 concerned students and colleagues began pouring in to his family. The letters, provided by his wife SanSan Kwan, speak of a professor who inspired his students to value their voice.
“You changed all of your students’ lives, and for the better,” one student wrote. “You have this way of teaching that encourages, challenges and brings out the most unique and creative pieces of people that would have otherwise remained buried under piles of dust.”
“Your classroom was a space of intersections … a place where our imaginations interacted with the imaginations of literature’s greats; a place where our ideas were just as valid as yours, Professor,” another student wrote. “Your classroom reminded us students that we are also teachers.”
Speirs, known as “Ken” or “Kenny” by his relatives and friends, is remembered as a dedicated academic and a family man.
After earning his doctorate in English from New York University in 1998, Speirs taught at universities in China and Taiwan for three years. He taught English at various community colleges and has received fellowships from the National Humanities Center at Yale University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Speirs also earned a Fulbright grant to teach American literature for six months in China.
Speirs, Kwan and their two sons moved to the Bay Area after Kwan received a position in UC Berkeley’s department of theater, dance and performance studies in fall 2011. He began teaching as a visiting lecturer of English on campus that same semester.
“He was a great scholar of 19th century American literature, but his foremost passion was teaching,” Kwan said. “It was his chief aim to put learning in the hands of students.”
In the classroom, Speirs was known to begin each lecture by connecting a personal story to the material to demonstrate to his students how literature could be be applicable to their lives and to help them write from an individual perspective, said Susan Schweik, associate dean in the division of arts and humanities of the College of Letters and Science.
“You could tell right away that he was not your typical professor,” said UC Berkeley senior Nina Smirnov. “He always started his lectures talking about his family and would transition to the lecture … His family anchored him.”
Smirnov added that she often saw Speirs walking around campus with his family. As much as he loved teaching his students, his primary focus was his family and raising his two sons, Kai and Bo, Kwan said.
His friends remember him as a committed teacher, an avid athlete and a gracious friend.
“He made me smile in how he just approached his classes with little stress and with upbeat humor,” said Laury Fischer, an English professor at Diablo Valley College, where Speirs began working as a full-time professor in August. Diablo Valley College is currently planning a memorial garden and a plaque to honor him.
Speirs is survived by his wife; two sons; his mother, Joan Speirs; his brothers, Garrett and Dan; and their families. Memorial services will be held in Berkeley and in Los Angeles in January.