If you are in the market for a motivational speaker for your next graduation, Kay Kemper is the woman for you. Energetic, optimistic, and full of joie de vivre, Kay could inspire the most woebegone and has uplifting wisdom to share.
From being the first female vice president in the history of Old Dominion University and president of the Downtown Norfolk Rotary Club, to creating her own successful lobbying firm, Kay is of a generation of women who shattered the glass ceiling for generations to come. Kay has wisdom to share.
Born in Bristol, Virginia, and raised in Staunton in the western part of the state, Kay went to college at William and Mary. With no thoughts of her future on the horizon other than to possibly meet her future husband, it’s difficult for Kay to answer the question how a little girl from Staunton, Virginia become a successful founder and president of a lobbying firm.
“I had no idea,” Kay laughed. “I was pretty competitive growing up, I will say that. My father was such a great influence on me. He had said to me a long time ago, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ So I thought he’s probably right.”
After graduating from college and no husband in sight, Kay asked her father for advice.“I said, ‘What do I do now, daddy?’ And he said, ‘You get a job.’ So I taught one year of high school English and then I got married, went overseas, and then we came back to Virginia.”
It was while working in the public relations office of a school system in Virginia that Kay’s life took a turn.
“One day the superintendent of schools called me in and said he wanted me to go to Richmond. They needed someone to represent the district. I went to Richmond, and I represented the school system for three years. Then Old Dominion hired me as their director of government relations. That’s when I thought to myself, ‘I’m a lobbyist.’ I didn’t even know what they were or what they did.
“I was at Old Dominion when I looked around and thought, ‘No one’s doing this down here in Hampton Roads, in Virginia Beach, in that area which is a million and a half people. There’s no lobbying firm, so I think I’ll start one here.’ Some people thought I was crazy because all the lobbyists were in Richmond, but it worked.”
One of Kay’s favorite quotes is, “What’s the worst that can happen? If you can handle the worst that could possibly happen, then try it.”
“I always think when I’m about to make one of these decisions whether it’s buying this house or starting a business, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I give that advice to the grandchildren. Don’t be afraid. You don’t need to know what you’re going to do when you grow up, because there are million jobs that probably don’t exist now. I was never going to be a lobbyist, but I fell into it, and I loved it, especially at the state level. You really can make a difference.”
Kay’s firm never took a client they didn’t believe in. From school systems to the Port of Virginia, they represented those who need a voice.
“I’ve found that nobody’s going to discriminate against a hard worker. We represent the Children’s Hospital. We represent Virginia Oncology and we set up two cancer centers in Hampton Roads that had trouble getting started because of some opposition from hospitals. We represented the Cancer Society instead of the cigarette manufacturers. You have a choice when you have your own company. At the end of the day, you want to look in the mirror and say, ‘That’s just great. That was a good thing to do.’”
Kay said she felt like it was a responsibility and an honor to work hard, so the next person wouldn’t have to..
When asked about how she feels about paving the way for the next generation of women, Kay demurred, “You know, I never thought of it quite like that. I always felt like if you worked hard, no one would discriminate against you. I found that to be the case for me. I felt strongly that I had to work extra hard to make it a little easier for the next person, for the next woman who came along so that they would say, ‘She was good, so we can let another woman have a chance.’”
Kay married a year after college. Her then-husband had a two-year obligation, as he had gone to Virginia Military Institute.
“The deal was that you had a two-year obligation, but if you gave them the third year, they would send you any place in the world. After that, they would send you wherever they wanted you to go, which at that time was Vietnam,” she explained.
They chose Germany and as it turned out, they didn’t send him to Vietnam, so the couple remained in Germany for the entire three years.
Traveling changed her life. “I was 23 years old and had never been out of the country. I’ve become quite the traveler after that.”
When Kay and her ex-husband got a divorce she still kept traveling.
“I would join those small travel groups and go to Tibet,” she said. “It changed my life to live in another country because you learn that people are more alike than you might have thought.”
A passion for travel is something that Kay and her husband Denny share. “Last year we started a new way of traveling. We had both traveled to so many places, so we decided about two years ago to go back to our favorite places and live there for a month. We’d live in a neighborhood, not staying in hotels.”
Kay feels so strongly about the benefits of travel that she set up two study abroad scholarships, one at William and Mary and one at Old Dominion.
“I went back to William and Mary not too long ago for the 50th reunion, and they had a little panel with questions. One question was, ‘What changed your life?’ Other people answered that is was their husband or their wife. I said ‘travel.’I guess I had become pretty independent in a lot of ways. It’s not always easy to meet somebody. I had my career, I had my business by then, I had friends and I was able to travel, so really it’s like 98 percent until you meet somebody. But of course, it’s way more than two percent.”
“Mr. two percent,” as he jokingly calls himself, is Denny Parker, Kay’s husband of 13 years.
“It’s an interesting story, how we met,” Kay said. “Our children were best friends growing up, and my son was already godfather to one of Denny’s grandchildren. Because we knew each other and because he was single, he had said to his son that he thought he might ask me out. His son said, ‘Don’t do that, because you can mess up our relationship with her.’”
Fortunately, Kay and Denny didn’t listen. “It did go well. He’s in the shipping business, so I finally found somebody who also loves to travel and to go different places.”
Even though Kay has been retired since 2016, the firm is still going strong.
“A year after I started the company, my son had just graduated law school and had been a page in Richmond, I had said to him one night, ‘So I need to hire a lawyer because I’m not a lawyer.’ He asked, ‘Why don’t you hire me?’ I thought that would be a problem because if it doesn’t work out, then I’ve not just lost an employee, I’ve lost a child. That’s important.”
Kay’s son, John-Garrett was insistent. “He said, ‘Oh mom, you know we get along so well, and we have different talents and abilities.’ I hired him and he’s still there. We’ve worked together for 20 years. It’s a real gift.”
John-Garrett and Kay complement each other in the workplace. “He’s the big picture guy and I’m the detail person. We didn’t have one argument in 20 years.
“I don’t know there’s something in my veins I couldn’t wait to get to the water.”
Kay and Denny found Boca Grande in 2015. “Denny’s former father-in-law used to come down with friends. They would visit here in the winter and Denny said why don’t we look around down there?”
Kay wasn’t too thrilled about the idea of living in Florida, but Denny had other ideas. “He said, ‘Sweetheart, I got a place for you.’”
Kay and Denny rented a golf cart, then went down Banyan Street. A man was walking his dog and Denny asked, ‘Do you live here?’ He said yes. Denny asked if he liked it here in Boca Grande and he answered, ‘What’s not to like?’”
That was in December. Kay and Denny came down in March of the next year, and the rest is history.
“You know, somebody said at the very beginning when we first started coming down here, ‘If you’ve found this place, you’re going to fit in.’ The people you run into, there’s like one degree of separation instead of 10 degrees. And it’s not just how pretty it is in Boca Grande, it’s the people. We’ve found that the people here are amazing.”
Kay has learned to be grateful for every day, and especially grateful for every healthy day and make the most of it. Looking to the future, Kay and Denny are excited to travel and have signed up for lectures and classes in Boca Grande.
“I walk and ride bikes,” she said. “I’ve even started taking golf lessons. I’m not an athlete, but I’m enjoying it. My goal is to hit the ball, then hit that a little bit further every time, unless I’m putting. I make par every once in a while.”
Kay is looking forward to mentor the future leaders of tomorrow, whether they be male or female.
“Denny played golf yesterday. He got out there and he said, “How did I ever make it here?”