Home Field Advantage
A Potomac family gives rise to an athletic dynasty—with a philosophy of one for all and all for one
One Saturday morning in March 2010, Bob and Cheryl Kemp were in Lafayette, Ind., watching their daughter Liz swim for the University of Florida in the national collegiate championships.
After she survived the preliminary heats, Bob drove more than two hours to South Bend, where their son John was playing lacrosse for Notre Dame against Ohio State. Then he drove back to Lafayette in time to see Liz swim the first leg of the relay race that gave Florida the title.
“That was a great weekend!” Bob remembers.
But not a particularly unusual one for Team Kemp.
Bob and Cheryl raised their four boys and three girls in an eight-bedroom house they bought in the River Falls section of Potomac 28 years ago. All seven kids played high school sports, six played in college (the boys were lacrosse goalies, the girls were swimmers) and five were All-Americans.
I’m talking with Bob one Saturday morning as he’s babysitting his 15-month-old granddaughter, Megan. “How in the heck did this all happen?” he asks, and searches for an answer.
Bob played football at the College of William & Mary, but Cheryl wasn’t an athlete and determination was clearly more important than DNA. “They had the discipline to separate themselves from the pack,” Bob says of his kids, and it’s clear where that came from.
Bob, 61, a mortgage banker, and Cheryl, 60, a school nurse, are deeply and defiantly old-fashioned. “Values in my world never change,” he says. “There’s right and there’s wrong, and fortunately enough, the kids have listened to me.”
They certainly have. I have lunch with five of them at Tommy Joe’s in Bethesda—Rob, 35; Julie, 33; C.J., 31; Joey, 25; and Liz, 23 (Erin, 28, is at a wedding and John, 20, is still at Notre Dame).
“We kind of function the same way any athletic team does,” says Julie, who’s Megan’s mom and now uses her married name, Kelly.
“Everyone is rooting for the person on the field or in the pool. When I go to their games, many times it’s hard for me not to say, ‘I’m Julie Kemp.’ My name has changed but I want to say ‘Kemp.’ ”
When the kids were growing up, getting everyone to the right games and practices was a logistical challenge rivaling the Normandy invasion.
For many years, the girls had swim practice every morning at 5. The alarm went off at 4:12 (4:10 was too early; 4:15, too late), and a parent had to drive them downtown to American University until Julie turned 16 and got her license.
Since Maryland bans kids under 18 from driving at night, she needed a special waiver to start that early. Even so, “for the first month or so I would follow her down,” Bob recalls, making sure Julie heeded his warnings about slick leaves and startled deer.
Cheryl was the Supreme Commander of Operations, posting a huge calendar next to the phone and driving a 15-passenger van with two gas tanks.
If she told the kids to “bring your book bag,” it meant she might be late and they should do homework while waiting for a ride home. Often she had to pack the younger ones into the van to pick up the older ones and, as she wryly recalls, “sometimes that was quite a deal.”
They all remember the ineffable odors spawned by sweat-stained pads and chlorine-soaked suits tossed into the rear of the van. “The smell, the smell,” several chant in unison.
That memory triggers a conversation about laundry. “Do you know how many socks we had in our house?” C.J. asks. “Thousands, thousands,” Julie says. “All unmatched.”
The kids started out playing multiple sports but focused on one when they got to high school, Cheryl says, with the younger ones wanting to emulate their older siblings.
Unlike many ambitious suburban parents, the Kemps never paid for special coaching, but their kids were still good enough to get hefty scholarships. Rob, the only child who didn’t play in college, joshes that he cost his parents more in tuition than the other six combined.
The elder Kemps seldom missed a game when their children were in high school, but college posed a tougher challenge.
One year Bob flew Southwest Airlines so often that the company gave him a free pass. He researched the times of the Roman Catholic mass in every city where his kids played—and demanded that they join him.
Devotion to thrift, like worship, is one of Team Kemp’s core commandments, expressed by “Dad’s Rule”: After college, you can’t move out till you can show him a bank statement with $50,000 in savings.
When we talk, four of the kids are still living at home. Julie and her family are about to move out to a new house just blocks from where her grandparents used to live in Rockville. C.J. and Rob, who are both married, live within 20 minutes of their parents.
Of their 31 first cousins, all but one live in the area. The suburbs have a reputation for restlessness and rootlessness, but the Kemps might as well be living in the Italian village where Cheryl’s ancestors were born.
“We all thought about living somewhere else, but we just knew we would never do it,” C.J. says.
Julie and her husband talked about buying a home near Baltimore, “but it just didn’t feel right,” she says. “The vision that we have for our family, our children, is to be around their cousins.”
Perhaps The Legend of the Tuna Fish Sandwich best explains this extraordinary family. During college, Bob had little money, so every night he and a pal would go to the same deli and order the cheapest thing on the menu—a tuna fish sandwich costing 75 cents.
When I talk to his kids, Bob is in South Bend for a lacrosse game. As our lunch ends, C.J. shows me a text message he has just received from his brother John at Notre Dame. It reads, “Dad has just ordered a six-inch tuna sub.”
Team Kemp roars with knowing laughter. “You can’t make this stuff up,” C.J. says. No, you can’t.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is Our Haggadah, written with his wife, Cokie. Send him ideas for future columns at firstname.lastname@example.org.