Confident that young people learn best by example, Wallace Kennedy persuaded professional artists, actors and musicians to mentor Minneapolis high school students in a 1970s program that became a national model for arts education.

At its peak, hundreds of kids -- prodigies and disaffected youth alike -- spent part of the school day performing at Minnesota Dance Theatre or Children's Theatre, or in programs run by local organizations including the Minnesota Orchestra, Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Most simply found outlets for youthful dreams and frustrations, but some went on to professional careers in the arts, acting on Broadway, performing on "A Prairie Home Companion" and dancing with Alvin Ailey and the Dance Theater of Harlem. With support from the federal Department of Education, Urban Arts was later replicated by dozens of schools across the country from the Bronx to Chicago and Seattle.

"That program flooded schools with working artists and became a template for how a lot of arts is taught now," said David Jordan Harris, a Minneapolis musician and longtime friend. "Legions of people owe their livelihood and sometimes their lives to that program."

Kennedy died Jan. 10 at his home in Richfield of myelofibrosis, a bone marrow disorder. He was 84.

In recent weeks Kennedy was overwhelmed with letters and notes from former students, colleagues, artists and performers whose lives he touched.

"I'm very moved by the wide web of people who knew and were so deeply influenced by him," said his son John, a composer and conductor based in Berkeley, Calif. "I've known intuitively about his generosity and the integrity with which he did his work, but he very quietly helped a lot of people to see their potential and gave them confidence in themselves."

Kennedy's influence on Minnesota education spanned more than 40 years, starting with a humanities program he and two colleagues launched at Albert Lea High School in 1957 and continuing into the 1990s when he helped develop the first curriculum for Minnesota's arts high school, the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley.

The Albert Lea program -- considered the nation's first public school humanities course -- was a two-year, team-taught curriculum that wove philosophy, art, music, and architecture into courses in American and European history and literature. Everything was taught from original source material rather than conventional textbooks, and field trips took kids to lectures, theater performances and museums in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

"It provided a model of humanities education throughout Minnesota," said Nick Cords, a co-founder of the course.

Growing up in North Dakota, Kennedy adopted a lifelong attitude inspired by the name of his hometown, Cando, pronounced Can Do. After graduating from high school in 1946, he spent two years in the navy and then entered the University of North Dakota intending to become a doctor. He soon switched to theater after winning a role as a gangster, no doubt typecast by his brooding eyes and rumbling voice. He also fell in love with fellow cast member Joyce Logeland, who became his wife of 62 years.

The couple transferred to the University of Wisconsin where Kennedy earned a B.A. in English in 1952, followed by a B.S. in education from Mankato State University in 1953.

After teaching stints in Delavan, Minn., and Forest Lake, Kennedy taught for a decade in Albert Lea and then moved to the Bloomington district. There he won a State Arts Board grant -- the first to a high school -- for a sculptor and composer in residence.

He ran Minneapolis' Urban Arts program from 1970-78 and then spent five years with the U.S. Department of Education, advising Urban Arts programs around the country. He taught at the Perpich Center until his retirement in 1993.

"I wanted kids to learn from people whose main purpose was to make art, not to teach kids," Kennedy said in a 1976 interview. But he was also driven by a personal passion for the arts, especially theater, that made his educational philosophy into a "selfish choice," he wrote in "Urban Arts," a memoir he published last year. An omnivorous theatergoer, he also served on the boards of the Minnesota Dance Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune and Southern Theater.

"He was the ideal audience member for a dancer or actor," said his friend Harris. "He never praised you for your facile accomplishment. But if you did something difficult not so successfully, he praised you for undertaking it. He was learned and passionate about these art forms, and because he saw everything, you knew his insights were really seasoned."

Besides his son, he is survived by his wife, Joyce, and daughters Ellen Michel of Bloomington, Ind., and Katherine Lepani of Canberra, Australia, and their families. A memorial will be held at 1 p.m. Feb.16 at Plymouth Church, 1900 Nicollet Av., Minneapolis.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431