We are sitting in a dim cozy pub in London’s Little Venice neighborhood, the warmth from the glowing fireplace held in by the cranberry colored wallpaper. Except for the current of icy air that sweeps through the room when the heavy wooden door swings open, the pub is warm, inviting, the perfect place for long and meandering conversations.
“So Caroline, who are you?” he asks over our thick wooden table, and the question catches me off guard. I stumble around with my words for an answer. He steeples his fingers in front of him, eyes gentle and patient as he waits for an answer. Ken Hassell is an art professor who spends a month out of every year teaching students a class about immigrant communities in London. The question he posed to me is indicative of his thoughtful nature and genuine interest in his students and those around him.
At first glance Hassell is hard to place in a category such as age or occupation. He is six-feet tall and has short gray hair. His daily uniform consists of knee-high leather boots, tight dark blue jeans, a knitted sweater, blazer, and a beautiful silk scarf. He wears a tiny gold hoop earring and his wedding band every day. His avant-garde style is a direct indication
of who he is: a nonconformist, defying social and cultural conventions if they don’t agree with his personal ethics or beliefs.
At 65, Hassell is playful and not at all static, as most people his age get labeled. He grew up outside of Chicago during the 1950s, which he characterized as a horribly oppressive time in American culture.
To him, high school was a highly structured social hierarchy where no one questioned anything. Rebelling one day, he brought his father’s copy of the book The Tropic of Cancer to school, which was banned in the United States for obscenity until 1964.
“I always felt like I didn’t quite fit into a group at school,” he said. “I didn’t understand a lot about myself, I was very insecure and I really did see my time in high school as just wasted.”
His mother took care of their family while his father worked as an electrical engineer. His older brother was the golden child, following in their father’s footsteps and becoming an engineer after graduating from University of California, Berkeley.
“I was called ‘son number 2’ by my father, and it wasn’t because I was the younger one,” he said. “My brother always did the right things and I never did.”
His SAT scores were high enough that he was able to go to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But college proved to be disappointing and not a hotbed of political activity and discussion as he had hoped.
“There was nothing going on there politically and I was just devastated,” he said.
He dropped out of college in the mid-1960s and became an anti-war protester. Hassell went through the pre-induction physical, which he said was an experience in itself, before his conscientious objector status was approved. Most of his friends also shared his ideas about social justice and opposition to the draft.
“We were thinking, do we leave the country? It was a difficult time. We were very worried; we were thinking, do we go to prison? It was an unjustifiable war and I wasn’t going to take part in it,” he said.
Hassell’s parents were open-minded to the civil rights movement and were fairly liberal politically. The family would discuss religion and politics at the dinner table, something unusual during the 1950s. But he was still frustrated by middle-class ideals he grew up with that did not challenge norms or explore new ways of thinking.
His parents “weren’t as radical as I was. I had this thing in me about wanting to be different, to rebel. I can remember coming home one day and we were talking about something political and I considered myself pretty radical. They said something that made me very upset and I just said ‘Fuck you’ and walked out of the house. That was just how I operated back then. I was very judgmental and I have toned down a lot since then,” Hassell said.
After dropping out of college, he moved to San Francisco to join more anti-war movements. He did odd jobs, working twelve-hour days making 75 cents to a dollar an hour. He lived in transient hotel rooms for $15 a week and was homeless for almost a year.
Hassell recalled a time he was working distributing advertisements in San Francisco’s financial district, walking 12 miles a day because he could not afford a bus ticket. He remembered feeling uncomfortable because of the way he was dressed.
“I was wearing these clothes and people were looking at me like ‘what are you doing here?’ like I was just filthy. That was my first insight into poverty, not just having no money but the psychological impact of feeling less than human,” he said.
Hassell was working as a parts manager at a Fiat dealership in Waukesha, Wis. in 1974 when he met a girl named Annie who brought in her car for repairs. He got her phone number off the receipt and called to ask her on a date. They knew each other for a few months when they decided to get married.
Ken and Annie have been married for over 35 years. She is a scientist and he is an artist. They decided a long time ago not to have children because they wanted to live their own lives and not make choices based on their children.
After Hassell got married he began rethinking his path in life and knew he could no longer survive doing transient hard labor jobs.
“After I got married I became depressed and knew I needed to go back to school so that I could advocate for social justice the way I wanted to,” he said.
Hassell went to undergraduate school at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and then to the University of Wisconsin for his graduate degree. He was asked to help teach a class during undergraduate school when he discovered his passion for teaching college students.
“I had to challenge myself in my shyness and my lack of confidence. It was something I wanted to do or I would live the rest of my life in fear,” he said.
After Hassell’s wife got a job in Chapel Hill, N.C. he began to look for teaching jobs at universities in the area. In 1990 he got a position as an art professor at Elon University.
One of his colleagues, Kirstin Ringelberg, has known Hassell since she came on staff as an art history professor at the university nine years ago.
“Ken was one of the reasons I came to Elon. We had a great conversation the first time I met him when I was interviewing for a position here,” she said.
She connected with Hassell because of his willingness to explore new ideas and his openness to change. One thing she and other colleagues joke about is that Hassell’s office door is always open, even when he is not there. When another professor’s laptop was
stolen in the department several years ago, he still refused to lock his office door because he wanted students to feel like they were always welcome to come in.
“Ken is a character! He knows who he is and I’ve never met another person like him. Ken is a people person and is always interested in getting to know his students, beyond the average professor/student relationship,” said Skylar Stump, a student and academic advisee of Hassell’s who has known him for four years.
His art degree and experiences with poverty and social injustice led to his interest in photography as a way to highlight social structures and different ways of life. A student of Hassell’s who was from the Appalachia region told him about what life was like in the
desolate coal mining towns there. He became interested in documenting the lives of the people of Appalachia, especially coal miners.
Hassell has spent the last several years learning people’s stories and photographing them during the summers when he is not teaching. The importance of documenting the lives of people and educating students and others on the environmental, social and economical impact of coal mining stems from Hassell’s early advocacy for social justice.
With retirement two and a half years away, Hassell is ready to slow down but wants to continue pursuing the things he is passionate about.
“If he learns something new his mind can change. He is not static and is always willing to be open. Ken is an outlier,” Ringelberg said.