Kathaleen “Kitty” Fishback Hempstone—former ICWA trustee and longtime institute supporter whose long relationship with Africa began with her husband Smith Hempstone Jr.’s fellowship there (1956-60)—died of complications of congestive heart failure February 20, her daughter Hope Hempstone said. She was 88 years old.
Kitty, who lived in Bethesda, MD, advised many fellows over decades, and formed close friendships with alumni and trustees, serving as one of the ICWA community’s intellectual and social mainstays.
She was born on September 6, 1932, in Washington, DC to Frederick Fishback and Kathaleen Rolls Fishback. She attended Sidwell Friends School and Vassar College, graduating in 1953.
She married Smith the following year. He was a young writer for National Geographic magazine. On their honeymoon in Venice, he discovered Ernest Hemingway was staying in their hotel and knocked on his door. “Been to Africa?” the great novelist was reported to have asked. “You ought to go. Africa’s man’s country—fish, hunt, write. The best.” Two years later he did go, and Kitty with him.
Their fellowship years continued to shape their lives long after. Kenya in particular would remain a touchstone for both. “While sitting on a Maine beach in 1987, the idea that he would be a fine ambassador to Kenya popped into his mind,” The New York Times writes. “He approached George H. W. Bush before his election the next year and said he would like the post. President Bush remembered.”
Following his ICWA fellowship, Smith worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America and Europe. He held several editorial positions at Washington newspapers before becoming editor of the Washington Times.
As ambassador to Kenya in 1989, he strongly advocated for free elections when all opposition parties were banned. His reward was criticism from the Kenyan government, mockery in the press and death threats. Smith was “an effective, aggressively undiplomatic critic of [Kenya’s] ruler, Daniel arap Moi,” his Washington Post obituary reads, “credited with helping usher multiparty elections into an African country that, although a US ally during the Cold War, had little tolerance for political dissent.”
When the Hempstones returned to Washington in 1993, Kitty kept close ties to Kenya and South Africa, which she often visited. She worked for the non-profit U.S.-South Africa Leadership Exchange Program. She also supported education and public health in Africa through Christ Church Georgetown’s Mission Committee, of which she was a longtime member, and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington’s Southern Africa Partnership Committee, which she helped found.
Kitty and Smith remained close to the institute as friends and trustees, he in the 1970s and she in the 1990s and again in the 2000s. She formed decades-long, transcontinental friendships with other institute alumni, including Denny Rusinow (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Austria, Italy, 1958-63) and his wife Mary, currently a trustee. Staying at the Hempstones’ Washington house in 1964 “started a tradition of home-stays,” Mary said, including meetings in Britain, Yugoslavia, Kenya and Italy. “She was a great friend and I shall miss her very much.”
Kitty also befriended new generations of institute fellows. She “made me feel welcome and offered advice along the way with charm, a deprecating sense of humor, a no-nonsense approach, practical as only a world traveler could be, and always incredibly supportive,” said former fellow Dirk Vandewalle (Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, 1986-89). Later a leading Libya scholar, Dartmouth professor and ICWA board chair, he says Kitty stayed in touch. “When I got a Fulbright to go to the Arab Gulf for a year, much of my social life came to revolve around people Kitty had introduced me to. ‘You just must get to know so-and-so,’ she would say. She was invariably right.”
Kitty is survived by her daughter Hope, son-in-law Jacob Buehler and three grandchildren. Smith died on Nov. 19, 2006 at the age of 77. He and Kitty were married 52 years.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.
The Hempstone family requests that friends and family make donations in her memory to ICWA or the Nyumbani Children’s Home in Nairobi, Kenya.
New York Times obituary of Smith here.
His Washington Post obituary here.
Photos courtesy of Hope Hempstone