Panama Native Receives Achievement Award From Salem College

PANAMA – From a small town to a small college, one of the area’s own has been recognized for his lifetime accomplishments.

James Kent, a 1955 graduate of Panama Central School, was recently awarded the Alumni Distinguished Achievement award from Salem College in Salem, W.Va., on Feb. 7.

Kent, who graduated from Salem College in 1959, received this recognition for his accomplishments in creating and applying a science of community approach to social, cultural and economic change known as the “Discovery Process.” The Discovery Process focuses on assisting clients in resource and energy development, health care, education and corporate management to understand, integrate and align with community traditions, beliefs and issues early in the project decision-making process.

“It was one of the most warm feelings I think I’ve ever had, to have my college recognize me like that,” said Kent. “The (Alumni Distinguished Achievement) award is given (by Salem College) every once in awhile when they discover, through their own alumni searching, someone who has distinguished themselves – and my name came up.”

During his time at Salem, Kent received his bachelor’s degree in human relations. He went on to earn a master’s degree in sociology from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, and his jurist doctor’s degree from the University of Denver. According to Kent, who grew up on a small farm in Panama, it was his early enrollment at Salem that prepared him for his future achievements.

“If I had gone to a large university, I wouldn’t have made it, I am convinced of that” he said. “But more importantly, I discovered that there can be a complete learning environment that nurtures the individual in the context of the greater social and cultural good, and that is what Salem College and the community of Salem offered.”


It was at Salem College that Kent’s future would be determined. Kent’s graduating class at Panama was comprised of 15 people, and conventional wisdom would have him working for the rest of his days in the industrial plants of Jamestown. The Kent family worked at the Automatic Voting Machine plant that made lever-voting machines. Kent worked at the plant during the spring break of his junior year in 1954 to get familiar with its operations.

He was placed in the paint section of the plant, where his job was to take the steel hulks of the voting machines – about 5 feet by 5 feet – and, with an acid bath, remove the rust from the steel casing before it went onto the paint booth. After two weeks, Kent had decided that this was not for him.

“In retrospect, it was good that I was placed in the paint section and not in the more comfortable mail room,” he said.

It was through Kent’s involvement with Boy Scouts and at the urging of Joe Betch, chief executive scout of the Chautauqua Council, that he overcame his fear of going without a college education. He applied to Salem, and was accepted into the American humanics curriculum.


After his departure from Salem in 1959, Kent found himself working with Robert Sargent Shriver, also known as Sargent Shriver, on President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation.

“When I left Salem, it was (just after) the Civil Rights Act, and I eventually ended up working in the war on poverty with Sargent Shriver,” he said. “I was at the University of Denver at the juvenile delinquent center for youth development. Shriver insisted that the poor run the war on poverty, and there weren’t any major theories on how that could happen.”

He continued: “I hit on (the Discovery Process) by working out in the communities and I discovered, essentially, that there is this whole world of informal networks and systems that people live by and are empowered by. The Discovery Process is driven by understanding these networks, and you can see that right now with citizen interactions.”

Kent is now the head of the JKA Group, which consists of three companies: the Center for Social Ecology and Public Policy, based in Ashland, Ore.; Natural Borders, based in Honolulu, Hawaii; and James Kent Associates, based in Denver and Basalt Colo.

He is also a columnist for the International Right of Way Association’s Magazine “Right of Way.” He writes under the head liner of: “Social Ecology: Leveraging the Science of Community.” His columns discuss elements of a transparent system on how companies and governments can directly benefit community members in their project endeavors, saving time, driving out costs, and building company and community goodwill. His latest work focuses on the emergence of informal citizen action networks, a bottom-up change process that is sweeping the world governments.


While his achievements have taken him far and wide, Kent still makes time to visit his hometown.

“I come as often as I can to the Panama alumni meeting in June, and I come to Chautauqua (Institution) quite often,” he said. “We meet with national and international associates about every three years. So, I come back all the time.”

Kent is grateful for the recognition he has received from his college, colleagues and his family. He also said that he hopes his story can be an inspiration to others.

“(My story) lets people know that there are other things to do than work in an automatic voting machine plant,” he said.