ALPINE — First things first: Mike Kennedy is a lot of things — state legislator, doctor and lawyer, father of eight, a self-made man who climbed out of poverty — but he is not, as reported on his Wikipedia page, an author and a poet who is known as “The new Robert Frost,” nor did he inspire “the Taylor Swift phrase, ‘Haters gonna hate.’ ”
“My children had fun with the Wikipedia page,” Kennedy explains a little sheepishly. “They read it and didn’t like it so they added some goofy stuff to make it more interesting.”
Actually, the additions were superfluous because Kennedy’s life story is better (and in some cases stranger) than fiction anyway; it’s just that he has never revealed it publicly, at least the part in which he grew up in a single-parent home, living under a leaky roof in a trash-strewn house he shared with rodents.
Kennedy could be the poster boy for refusing to wallow in victimhood and using hard work and ambition (and a little help) to forge a better life. He is an overachiever, a man who went straight from medical school graduation to law school despite a pile of school debt and a growing family to support. And still that wasn’t enough. He ran for political office in 2012 and won the seat for state House District 27, representing Alpine, Highland and Cedar Hills. That’s three careers, and he’s only 46.
“I saw what I didn't want my life to be and decided I would do everything I could to make my life what I wanted it to be,” says Kennedy. “The idea that all poor or disadvantaged are destined for trouble — I dispute that.”
For his day job, Kennedy is a family doctor in Lindon. He sees patients Monday through Friday, although he takes off Wednesday afternoons and Thursday mornings to attend to political and familial responsibilities. During the six weeks the Legislature is in session each year, he takes a leave of absence and his partners cover his patients, although he sees some patients on weekends. As a legislator, he is paid a salary of $15,000, but the bottom line is that he takes a 25 percent pay cut to practice politics instead of medicine.
“They’re all related,” he says. “Medicine is about the individual and helping him heal. The law heals society — it involves the one and the framework for the many. Politics is a different version of societal healing.”
Kennedy is a long way from his Michigan roots. His mother, Kathy, struggled with mental illness; his father, Hugh, also had deep personal challenges. Their divorce left Kathy to care for seven children during a deep recession in Michigan. They had severe financial problems. As a teen, Kennedy filled out his mother’s tax return one year and was astonished to learn that her total income was a mere $17,000.
Converts to the LDS Church, they relied heavily on church welfare for food. Kennedy, the second oldest of the children, pushed his mower all over the town of Ypsilanti mowing lawns, beginning at 14 — the year his parents divorced. Later, he bussed tables at a local restaurant to support himself. He and his siblings wore hand-me-downs to school, holes and all, and relied on a free lunch program at school.
“It was humiliating,” Kennedy says. “The other kids brought cash or their own lunch; I had a free lunch punch card. I didn’t know what else to do; I was a starving kid. These were some of the most formative experiences of my life. I realized if I didn’t control money it would control me. I manage my money now. If I can’t pay for it, I don’t buy it.”
The Kennedys’ home life was further challenged by Kathy’s struggles. She was a compulsive hoarder and the house was filthy, the floor covered a foot deep in trash, with paths cut through the debris to the rooms. “At night you could hear the mice running around,” says Kennedy. The place was such a mess that Kennedy refused to let friends come to visit.
There was one bathroom for eight people to use. The roof leaked and the plumbing failed, but there was no money for repairs. The house was cold in the winter and hot in the summer, with only one box air conditioner on the front window to cool the entire house.
“Only by God’s help could we have made it out of such troubles,” Kathy told her son recently.
Despite her many personal challenges, Kathy took the kids to church every Sunday and to early morning Mormon seminary classes during the week. The march to the shower began at 4:50 a.m. They left the house at 5:30 for the half-hour drive to seminary, then raced home to catch the bus for a 30-minute drive to school. Kathy drove the kids to seminary herself and while they were in class she took an adult seminary class.
Of the seven children, three became doctors, one earned an MBA and another is studying to be a physician’s assistant. All seven children served missions for the LDS Church and were married in an LDS temple; all five boys earned their Eagle Scout award.
“It’s amazing,” says Kennedy. “A miracle. That’s God’s handiwork in our lives. Whatever gaps there were in my life, there were people to fill them — Young Men leaders, bishops, neighbors, home teachers. I am so grateful to them.”
Kennedy was an A student who played trumpet in the high school symphony and marching band and competed for the gymnastics team. He attended BYU with the help of academic scholarships, Pell grants and a job (he “threw boxes” for UPS).
After taking time off to serve a church mission in Arizona, he graduated from BYU in 1994 with a 3.75 GPA and a degree in science. He was among some 5,000 students to apply for and win one of 120 slots in the Michigan State Medical School. He graduated in 1998 and completed his residency in 2001. With a wife and five children and $120,000 in student-loan debt, he moved his family to Orem that year and rented a house in Orem.
“I was finally going to get a job to pay off the loans,” he says.
Instead, he immediately started law school.
It was something he began to consider early in his medical school studies after he and his classmates heard a lecture by defense attorneys. “They were telling us how not to get sued,” recalls Kennedy. “I realized there’s a whole world around the medical world that could impact us; doctors don’t know anything about the law because they’re so immersed in medicine, but lawyers know a lot about doctors. If we don’t know about it, it can cause problems for us. If we do, we can use it as a tool.”
For a year he studied law full time at the BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School. For the next five years he worked as a doctor while also attending law school. He took law classes in the morning before going to work, then attended law classes again in the evening and studied late into the night. In one week alone he read 200 pages of legal material.
”There were times I wondered, 'What am I doing here,' ” he says. “It was a long five years.”
He passed the bar exam and became a full-fledged attorney in 2007, specializing in — what else? — malpractice work for a Utah law firm while also managing his medical practice. He recently accepted an inactive lawyer status after finding it too difficult to keep up with the continuing education credits that the bar association requires every two years while also serving as a legislator and doctor (which also has continuing education requirements).
“It was overwhelming to do both,” says Kennedy, who continues to be consulted by law firms.
In 2012, Kennedy decided to run for the state Legislature, taking office in January 2013. “I just felt like it was my time,” says Kennedy. “I had gathered the skills I needed, and I was ready to step into the public arena and do some good.”
He is fiscally conservative but acknowledges that government and others helped him get where he is today. “I believe government has a role to play in helping the least advantaged of our society,” he says. “The suffering that my family sustained over the years was made less through the generosity of church members and some government programs. My public policy efforts are founded on the old saying, ‘Give a hand up, not a hand out.’
“We should, through the political process, empower people to accomplish what they would naturally do themselves. We create a building or environment in which they can succeed — clean water and air, protected borders and so forth — but at some point if they expect us to clean it and feed them and tell them what to drive and take care of their children — leave the details to people.”
Kennedy, who has the spare build of a marathon runner, has settled in Alpine with his wife and their eight children, whose ages range from 6 to 22. He begins his day with long walks and weight lifting. He ends his days by reading to his younger children. It's an idyllic life, made more so against the background of his youth.
“That’s part of the beauty of America,” he says. “People have the opportunity to succeed if they work hard and stay away from damaging things such as alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. I’ve spent my professional life helping people fill their personal objectives by encouraging them to be free and not bound by sickness and addiction. They’re the captain of the ship; I’m the first mate. I can’t make decisions for them.”