By the time Emerson Trustee Marillyn Zacharis arrived at the College in 1972 with her husband John (who had taken a job teaching speech and would later become president), Professor Kenneth Crannell was “already a legend.”
He was renowned for his ability to inhabit a range of characters using just his expressive and powerful voice, Zacharis said, and for his ability to inspire students.
“He would do a Southwick Recital [interpretive speech performance] and use his amazing voice and interpretive talent to keep an audience rapt. Nothing on the stage but Ken. But that’s all that was necessary,” she said. “He shared that talent with his students and inspired them in many ways.”
Crannell ’55, MA ‘57, professor emeritus of communication, died Friday, August 19, leaving his wife, Patricia (Roberts) ’57; children, Kenneth Jr. (Chuck) ’91, and Tracy; and generations of admiring and grateful students and colleagues.
He graduated from Emerson with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, and then taught at his alma mater from the time he earned his master’s degree in 1957 until retiring in 1999. In those 42 years, Crannell trained students in Voice and Articulation, eventually authoring a textbook of the same name that was used in classrooms across the country. In 1970, he earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
Crannell helped students speak clearly and confidently, whether on the stage, in the office, or at the dinner table. On the Emerson College Facebook page, a number of students even credited him with ridding them of unwanted accents.
He was known for requiring students to recite the poem “Jabberwocky” from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, a combination of English and vaguely Anglo-Saxon-sounding nonsense words.
“Ken Crannell was an exceptional teacher, one you appreciated long after your classroom experience was over,” said Jeff Greenhawt ’68, chair of the Board of Trustees, in a statement. “He was passionate, demanded your full participation, and at times was quite intimidating…Ken Crannell was that unique teacher who left you better prepared, not just with educational knowledge but also as part of your very unique Emerson experience.”
Crannell was honored for his contributions to Emerson throughout the years. In 1982, he was recognized with a Distinguished Alumni Award for his outstanding achievements in speech and articulation. In 2005, Crannell’s 50th reunion year, family and friends established the Kenneth C. Crannell Sr. Scholarship in Speech Communication and Public Leadership, an endowed fund in his honor. This year, the Class of 1966 donated to the scholarship for its 50th reunion gift.
Crannell also revived the Southwick Recitals, a showcase featuring the oral interpretation of literature that was initiated by Emerson's third president, Henry Lawrence Southwick, in 1900. Ken was widely recognized as one of the outstanding practitioners of this art, according to Iwasaki Library Executive Director Robert Fleming, and his dedication to the series ensured that it took place annually from his first Southwick in 1957 through the 100th anniversary Recital in the year 2000.
J.T. Turner, who attended Emerson in the late 1970s, remembers Crannell performing a one-man adaptation of My Fair Lady—seated, because as a survivor of polio while a student at Emerson, he had mobility challenges.
“He would be confined to a chair or a stool, and he would do My Fair Lady, and you would swear he was dancing with Eliza [Doolittle],” Turner recalled.
Turner said he arrived at Crannell’s (required) Voice and Articulation class a little cocky, having won a number of New Jersey state speaking awards in high school. Crannell deftly cut him down to size. Then he built him back up.
“He would tear us to shreds,” said Turner, a stage actor. “He had this incredible acerbic wit…he ripped me apart in class. He set the bar so incredibly high [but] it was just what I needed. He made me into a better performer than I had ever been or could ever imagine being.”
Turner said he and Crannell stayed in touch after Turner left Emerson, drifted apart, then reconnected around 10 years ago. Crannell helped him with his one-man show about Robert Frost, whom Crannell had met when the poet visited Emerson, and coached Turner’s son, Jim, when the two were in a production of Woman in Black.
He said he was thrilled that his son got the benefit of a Crannell education too.
Though Crannell was known for being tough on students, he could also be disarmingly kind and sincere, Paul Beck ’69, said.
In 1966, Beck, who retired from the Emerson Television, Radio, and Film Department in 2013 after 32 years, was a transfer student hanging out in the newly acquired Engineer’s Club at 96 Beacon Street. Crannell was holding a special class in the Club, and was struggling with a 16mm movie projector, Beck recalled.
He caught Beck’s eye, called him over, and asked him if he could get the projector running for him. Then he asked if he could stay and make sure it ran through the whole class.
“So I stayed, sat through a neat film on the art and science of public speaking…and…I made a friend for life,” Beck wrote in an email.
When the class was over, Crannell asked Beck his name and the next day, Beck was summoned to the Dean’s office, where he was handed a sealed envelope.
“It was on Emerson stationery with the neatest handwriting I had ever seen,” Beck wrote. “It was a thank you note from Dr. Crannell, in which he expressed, in the most sincere language, his appreciation and gratitude for my helping him with the film at a time he really needed a lift.
“I must say, I had never received a thank you note like that before or since, which made me feel so good and appreciated,” Beck said.
Professor Emerita Charlotte Lindgren said at the time that Crannell was teaching Voice and Articulation, you could tell an Emerson student just by hearing him or her speak.
“More people came out [of Crannell’s class] afterward saying that his course really taught them more than anything else at Emerson. He was a fine teacher, and on top of that, he worked hard,” said Lindgren, who served on a number of committees with Crannell when she taught English at the College. “On committees, he never minded speaking up. Sometimes he and I were on opposite sides, but we always liked each other and always respected each other.”
Lindgren said that to her, Crannell embodied the spirit of “old Emerson,” and he was utterly dedicated to Emerson and its students throughout his entire career. Even though Crannell retired a number of years ago, his legacy continues to influence the College, she said.
“He was ‘Mr. Emerson,’” Lindgren said. “He was just totally involved.”
Turner, the actor, said when he was a 19-year-old Emerson student, he played Captain Hook in a staged reading of Peter Pan directed by Crannell.
Decades later, after he had lost contact and then reconnected with Crannell, his old professor came to see a production of Man of La Mancha that Turner was acting in and that Emerson faculty member Spiro Veloudos ’74 was directing as artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company.
Before the curtain rose, Crannell met Turner backstage and handed him a bag. Turner said he knew what was in the bag, and he knew that he couldn’t open it before the show if he wanted to make it through the performance in one emotional piece.
After the curtain fell, Turner looked inside the bag.
“Sure enough, it’s my hook,” Turner said through tears. “It’s the hook I used when I was 19 years old.”
Visiting hours will be held at the Robinson Funeral Home, 809 Main Street, Melrose, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, August 24, from 4:00 to 8:00 pm; a funeral service will take place at Trinity Church, 131 West Emerson Street, Melrose, at 1:00 pm on Thursday, August 25, according to his obituary. Visit RobinsonFuneralHome.com to leave tributes or condolences.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Kenneth C. Crannell Sr. Scholarship (emerson.edu/support-emerson/ways-giving/scholarship-gifts) at Emerson College, 120 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116; or the Cradle Foundation, 2049 Ridge Avenue, Evanston, IL 60201.