A man well remembered for establishing firsts
Olympic sailor James “Jimmy” Kempe has died at the age of 94.
An engraver whose handiwork adorned trophies as well as gifts to visiting dignitaries, Mr Kempe represented the island twice at the Olympic Games — in Melbourne in 1956 and Rome in 1960.
Flying to Australia in a propeller plane as a member of Bermuda’s first Olympic sailing team, Mr Kempe crewed with HB “Brownie” Eve and Bernie Ward to compete in a Dragon class vessel.
Carrying Bermuda’s flag into the arena was an experience Mr Kempe never forgot, and the legacy was continued by his sons, Reid and Jay, who sailed at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
“No other person I know of has had their son follow in the very same event — and I’ve had two,” Mr Kempe told The Royal Gazette a year later.
Mr Kempe was a founding member and first president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and helped to found the clean-up group that became Keep Bermuda Beautiful.
A founding member also of Sandys Rotary Club and president in the 1980s, he was also an honorary life member of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club.
Mr Kempe built his first boat at the age of 8, and his first sailboat when he was 16.
He raced locally and overseas in the Luders 16 Class and was a keen member of the Bermuda Offshore Cruising Association.
He also represented Bermuda at three world championships — at Larchmont in the United States in 1983, followed by Edinburgh and Clyde in Scotland in 1985 and 1987.
According to Jay Kempe, his father “improved significantly” after each race, with overseas competitors left wondering who “this guy from Bermuda” was.
He said his father came from “a family of humble beginnings but whose parents and siblings all achieved much through hard work, ambition and resilience”.
His father, James Wasson Kempe, was a Collector of Customs, while his mother, Mabel Gertrude Kempe, a music teacher, was active in the island’s suffragette movement.
Mr Kempe was the youngest of five: his sister, Eleanor McGavern, was a nurse; brother Wilbur Kempe, known as Winky, founded Bermuda Forwarders, while Bill Kempe was a founding partner of the firm Appleby, Spurling and Kempe, and his sister Lois Aitchison, a Julliard graduate, became a musician.
Known as the artist of the family, Mr Kempe studied engineering and fine arts at Mount Allison Academy in Canada, but spent a year in hospital for polio.
He married Elizabeth Reid in Canada in 1947, and returned home to set up a craft shop, specialising in leather handbags for Cecile’s.
He set up the shop Kempecraft a year later and branched out into jewellery, painting and ceramics.
He trained as an engraver of silver in 1948, becoming the island’s specialist.
According to his family, his work appeared on “all major local trophies”, as well as silver gifts, including items for visiting world leaders including the Queen, the Pope, President Nixon, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia.
Retiring in 1993, Mr Kempe said: “I may not have made a lot of money in a small business, but it’s suited me fine because there is so much freedom to go off and do other things.
“I’m sure that if I’d worked for an exempt company, there’s no way they’d let me go off around the world racing sailboats.”
A service celebrating his life will be held at 4pm today in Christ Church, Warwick, with interment to follow.
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