Kent State community mourns Kim Winebrenner, English professor who put ‘students first’

A portrait of a pensive Emily Dickinson hung on the wall of Winebrenner’s office. Winebrenner was preparing to teach a seminar on Emily Dickinson in Spring 2021. 

Lyndsey Brennan Reporter

Editor’s note: Kent State English professor Kimberly Winebrenner, 57, passed away unexpectedly Dec. 3, 2020, at Akron General Cleveland Clinic. The following is an appreciation of her life.

Satterfield 204A was not a community center, or a library, or a coffee shop where the baristas knew your name and your usual order.

But it was something like that.

In 2004, when Kimberly Winebrenner became the assistant undergraduate coordinator for Kent State’s English department, she decided her office and its adjacent lounge area would be a space where students felt welcome to hang out or do work in peace.

She covered the tables with bits of poetry and passages from novels, which she shellacked onto the surfaces, so students would always have a bit of Robert Frost or Charlotte Brontë at their elbows. 

Her office itself brimmed with the stuff of her work life: her crafting supplies, her teapot collection, and the leftover materials from the clubs she advised. Copies of Luna Negra, the campus literary magazine, and board games for Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society, sat in stacks, waiting to be sent with any student that might need them.

Her door, covered with two decades’ worth of the cat postcards students and colleagues sent because they knew she loved them, opened and closed to a constant stream of students who came to fix themselves a cup of one of her fancy teas and plan out their programs or vent about the stresses of college life.

“When you were in her office, you really felt that you were being heard and listened to,” said 2009 graduate Nicholas DiSabatino, who Winebrenner mentored. 

“Kim took care of her students better than anyone,” said Robert Sturr, who served with Winebrenner as undergraduate coordinator from 2012 to 2018. “She was always thinking about the ‘home’ we were creating in Satterfield for undergraduate students.”

Up until her death at 57 on Dec. 3, 2020, Winebrenner advised the bulk of Kent campus’ English majors and minors. She was actively working with 50 to 75 students at any one time, Sturr said. 

While the cause of her death was not shared publicly, her husband Kurt wrote in her obituary, “Maybe her heart failed because she had given it all away during her short life.”

Her colleagues knew her for her comprehensive knowledge of the English department’s history and culture and her work with the faculty union.

Her students knew her for her ability to speak brilliantly and completely extemporaneously about her favorite authors and her deep love for her family— her husband of 30 years, Kurt, step-daughter Emily, who died in 2016, and son, Andrew, 12.

A Canton native, Winebrenner is survived by her mother, Bonnie Cole, and siblings Cynthia Cottrell, Michael Cole and Joseph Cole. She was preceded in death by her father, Frank Cole.

‘Riled up, in a good way’

In the 1980s, American women made huge strides in academia, outpacing their male counterparts in college enrollment and degrees conferred for the first time. It is easy to imagine Winebrenner as a bright-eyed freshman English major in the early ’80s walking to class among throngs of Kent State students sporting jean jackets, oversized glasses and, for the women, center-parted, feathery Farrah Fawcett hair.

Winebrenner earned her bachelor’s degree in 1985, her master’s in 1988, and her Ph.D. in 1991, all in English from Kent State. Her dissertation on the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet traced Bradstreet’s maturation as a writer as she grew from an impersonal imitator of other poets to a woman in full possession of her own voice, emotions, history and identity. It also explored Bradstreet’s struggles with chronic illness, religion’s difficult questions and societal expectations for women.

DiSabatino, Winebrenner’s former student, recalled the fire she brought to discussions about feminism in her women’s literature class. “I remember when we read Edith Wharton’s ‘House of Mirth’ she would always say, ‘Not much has changed for women,’” he said. “She would get so riled up, in a good way.”

Winebrenner was hired at Kent State as a full-time non-tenure track professor (FTNTT) in 1998. She preferred a non-tenure track position because she wanted to dedicate her time to teaching and advising rather than researching and publishing, even though, Sturr said, “she was quite capable as a scholar.”

Her style of lecturing was conversational, eloquent and organic. “I know she had notes,” but she didn’t need them, said alumna Hagan Whiteleather, who described Winebrenner as a “mother-sister-mentor-adviser” to her. “The ideas just rolled off her tongue. She knew her subject matter so thoroughly.”

From 2005 onward, Winebrenner put her language and logic skills to use as chief negotiator for the FTNTT Bargaining Unit in Kent State’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). She also served as one of the union’s “moral compasses,” said FTNTT Bargaining Unit President Tracy Laux. 

“Many times, those involved in negotiations allow their own personal goals to impact their opinions, but with Kim, it was always the ‘greater good.’ She was always concerned about those whose voices were not being heard,” he said.

Winebrenner won a number of awards for her teaching and advising throughout her time at Kent State, including the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Advisor Award in 2010 and the Distinguished Honors Faculty Award in 2007. She was promoted to full professor in 2013. 

‘The original students-first advocate’

Though Winebrenner could not serve in the position of undergraduate coordinator due to her FTNTT status, she was the most knowledgeable and involved among those supervising the English undergraduate program, Sturr said.

Winebrenner wanted to put on the best possible program for students, so when she saw a need, she volunteered to fill it. She served as an advisor to four student organizations and as a reader or director for more than 30 students’ honors theses and writing portfolios. In an effort to help students find classes that aligned with their passions, she hosted dinners where professors could come with copies of their syllabuses and chat with students one-on-one. 

When the department revamped the course sequence for the undergraduate degree, she fought to add a class she designed called Intro to Literary Study. Up until that point, the department “had no course that brought students into an understanding of the major,” Sturr said.

She wrote the script for the chair to read at the department’s annual award ceremony, adding personal details about each student — something only she could do because she knew her students so well.

“I don’t think she ever had a student in a class who was just a body in a seat,” said Whiteleather, who graduated in 2015 and now works at Kent State as a lecturer. “They were always individual people who had stories she knew.”

Last year, Kent State leadership began using the phrase, “Flashes take care of Flashes” — but that had been Winebrenner’s M.O. decades beforehand. “In my mind, she was the original students-first advocate,” Sturr said. “It was on her radar to create safe spaces for LGBTQ students and accessible ones for students with disabilities long before most of us.”

“I don’t mean to make her into a saint,” Sturr said, laughing. “She had a temper. She was learning Chinese, and during boring meetings, she would practice writing Chinese characters. She was funny. She was human.”

Students and professors interviewed for this article were astounded by the workload Winebrenner juggled as a union representative, faculty senator, thesis director, professor and advisor.

“When I started working as a professor, someone told me, ‘You can’t do it all,’ so you choose something to specialize in,” Sturr said. “But Kim did it all. She was exceptional. Most professors can’t do all the things she did.”

Whiteleather said while there are many kind professors who are helpful during their office hours, “when they’re done with work, they’re done. They go home, and that’s a valid life choice. But Kim was never ‘off.’ Even when she was at home, she was answering emails.”

DiSabatino, a publicity manager for a university press, credits Winebrenner with helping him secure a future for himself in publishing. “She was great at helping people see their dreams were possible.” 

“That sounds kind of cliché,” he added, “but she was earnest about it. She wasn’t bullshitting. Some professors go through the motions, but she wasn’t like that. She was invested.”

If it were up to DiSabatino, Kent State would rename Satterfield Hall after Winebrenner. If anything, he said, “her spirit will stay in Satterfield. Her legacy will stand the test of time.” 

Correction: The story has been changed to reflect the fact that Sturr served as undergraduate coordinator from 2012 to 2018. An earlier version of this article stated that he served from 2005 to 2012.

Lyndsey Brennan is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].