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James R. Kitchen James R. Kitchen
 


In Memoriam: James R. Kitchen

The former vice president of student affairs supported a variety of student success programs, especially for underrepresented minorities and former foster youth.
By SDSU News Team
 

Updated Aug. 6, 2022, to reflect the cancellation of a planned Celebration of Life.

James Russell Kitchen, a 13-year San Diego State University administrator whose experiences as a decorated combat soldier in the Vietnam War prompted a special dedication to military veterans, has died. He was 78.

Kitchen died July 4 at his home in Bonita after a long illness, his family confirmed.

Kitchen was vice president of student affairs from July 2000 to May 2013, a period of significant increases in student success and retention at SDSU. He had spent 28 years previously at three other universities in the Midwest and West but pronounced himself “an Aztec for life” when he retired, and continued in a volunteer role at SDSU.

Top administrators credit Kitchen with playing a major role in reducing the achievement gap in the retention and graduation rates of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups at SDSU.

In 2007, Kitchen co-launched SDSU’s Guardian Scholars program along with Reggie Blaylock, then director of the Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs (EOP). The program supports undergraduate students who are former foster youth, wards of the court, formerly homeless youth and students under legal guardianship. To date, it has provided financial aid and other support to hundreds of students to help them stay in college and graduate, serving students who have aged out of the foster-care system, are formerly homeless, and others.

Kitchen also established SDSU’s chapter of the Student African American Brotherhood, the Daily Aztec reported, attending its meetings and making himself accessible to its members.

Kitchen, who earned a doctorate in education at Northern Arizona University in 1986, received SDSU Alumni’s Distinguished University Service Award in 2018 as vice president emeritus, and a similar award in his name was established by SDSU Athletics in 2012.

Kitchen was born Nov. 22, 1943, in Huntsville, Missouri, the oldest of eight children. He was the son of a coal miner and entrepreneur, and he became a first-generation college graduate from Eastern Illinois University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physical education and a master of science in education

Kitchen enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating from high school. He served in Vietnam in Cu Chi from 1966-67, a time in which the United States was expanding both the air and ground war in Southeast Asia. Kitchen was an M60 machine gunner in helicopters and an M50 gunner on the ground and was wounded twice, receiving the Purple Heart and honorably discharged, but he abandoned previous thoughts of re-enlisting and becoming an officer.

“When you see the devastation that a war can do to a person — mentally, physically — it’s tough,” Kitchen said in a video biography filmed when he received the 2018 Distinguished University Service Award.

Distinctions and awards

The Distinguished University Service award was one of several awards and distinctions for Kitchen at SDSU. The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators named him a “Pillar of the Profession” in 2007, and he was named vice president emeritus at SDSU after retiring.

His wife, Sandra Williams, said that like many Black servicemen, Kitchen returned “to a country in which they were still a second-class citizen.” He was particularly affected when a fellow soldier who was killed in Vietnam could not be buried in his hometown veterans’ cemetery because of his race.

“He was filled with a powerful life force and he said, ‘I’m going to take this experience and I’m going to make it into something for good,’” Williams said. Kitchen became determined to graduate from college “to help others and do good and raise them up,” she said, “and that’s the reason he went into higher education.”

“He believed very strongly in providing the opportunity for everyone to graduate,” Williams added, “especially those students who one might think were disadvantaged or perhaps might not make it.” He especially wanted student athletes to recognize the opportunities that education provides, she said.

Former SDSU interim president Sally Roush, who knew Kitchen during her time as senior vice president for Business and Financial Affairs, said he was dedicated to student success.

“He assembled a team of professionals who were similarly dedicated, and set about to tackle the myriad issues that had historically led to achievement gaps at SDSU and universities across the country,” Roush said. “Jim’s efforts and leadership to enhance student success led directly to nationally recognized outcomes to close the achievement gap at SDSU.”

“Beyond leadership of his team, Jim was an inspiring and valued colleague and friend to many.,” Roush said. “His big smile and bigger heart captivated and energized those who had the privilege of working with him at San Diego State University.”

Kitchen’s arrival at SDSU followed positions at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota (head assistant basketball coach, director of affirmative action, and assistant to the vice president for academic affairs), the University of Nevada Las Vegas (director of the Student Development Center, and a director of counseling) and the University of Kansas (associate vice chancellor of student affairs and dean of students).

In a March 2013 interview with The Daily Aztec to mark his impending retirement, Kitchen said that despite his student years as a Rebel, Husky and Jayhawk, “SDSU is family to me” and “I am an Aztec for life.”

“To come here and really be a part of its growth as a vice president, that really is special,” Kitchen told the student newspaper.

In retirement, he remained active with SDSU’s Veterans Advisory Council and the athletics committee of The Campanile Foundation, and was a member of the steering committee of Friends of SDSU, the independent group formed to back the 2018 ballot measure authorizing the sale to SDSU of city-owned land in Mission Valley.

He also maintained a lifetime love of fishing, having owned boats since his college days in Minnesota, when the objective was walleye and pike.

Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Sandra; four brothers, Donald, Tom, Charles and Steven; two sisters, Barbara and Doris; a son, Jon; two daughters, Jamie and Jacole; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson. He was preceded in death by two brothers, John Estil and Ronald; and a daughter, Jennifer.

In lieu of flowers the family suggests donations to the SDSU Black Resource Center or The Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center.

A Celebration of Life originally planned for August 11 was canceled due to a COVID-19 exposure.