LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 26, 2024) — Last fall, the University of Kentucky awarded an honorary degree to John Rosenberg, a longtime civil and human rights activist, who has distinguished himself through his career and community service.
Rosenberg, who is a Holocaust survivor, received a standing ovation by graduates and attendees during the presentation of his honorary degree at UK’s December 2023 Commencement. Watch here.
UK President Eli Capilouto reflects on the day and why Rosenberg was selected to receive the university's highest honor.
“Last month, I had the distinct honor of conferring an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters to John Rosenberg, a distinguished member of our Kentucky community," Capilouto said. "He has been an incredible force for change in Kentucky, specifically in the Appalachian region. He helped to lead the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky (AppalReD) for more than 30 years, training UK law students as they worked with communities confronting environmental and safety issues related to coal mining, consumer and housing matters, educational problems, public assistance and family law matters.
"Dr. Rosenberg’s commitment to advancing Kentucky is unending. He truly embodies UK’s mission to improve lives through education, research and creative work, service and health care. The change he has brought to Kentucky and its families is a testament to the power of our alumni who uphold our nearly 160-year-old promise. I am proud to call him a member of our Wildcat family.”
Saturday, Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In commemoration of this, and in memory of the millions of victims who lost their lives, UKNow is sharing Rosenberg’s story — the same one that was shared during the presentation of his degree. While it begins in tragedy, it unfolds into a life dedicated to serving others, including thousands of Kentuckians.
Rosenberg was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1931. On Nov. 9, 1938, seven-year-old Rosenberg and his parents were pulled from their home by Nazis and stood in the courtyard of the adjacent synagogue, where they were forced to watch the holy scriptures burned and the building interior blown up. For a year afterward, Rosenberg and his family stayed in an internment camp in Rotterdam, Holland, before coming to the U.S. in February 1940. The family lived in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for three years and then moved to Gastonia, North Carolina, where Rosenberg attended junior and senior high school. He was an Eagle Scout and president of his sophomore and senior classes.
The first in his family to attend college, Rosenberg attended Duke University and worked in the dining halls all four years. While at Duke, he joined the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program and upon graduation served three years as a navigator and instructor navigator in the U.S. Air Force. After the Air Force, Rosenberg studied law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, whereupon he went to work at the Civil Rights Division. He served there from 1962 to 1970 and made his mark as a litigator of racial discrimination cases, particularly in the South.
While working for the Civil Rights Division, he met his wife, Jean, who has worked side by side with him for years. Together, they traveled to Eastern Kentucky, a trip that transformed their lives. Rosenberg was contemplating a move from the Department of Justice and learned of a fledgling organization that was slated to address the symptomatic issues of poverty and assist low-income persons with their legal needs in the region. That organization was the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, also known as AppalReD Legal Aid.
Rosenberg directed AppalReD and oversaw its expansion and efforts for more than 30 years, after its founding in 1970. He and his staff trained many UK law students, who worked as interns and clerks for the organization and then went on to become outstanding lawyers, academics and even judges in the intricacies of helping people deal legally with environmental and safety issues related to coal mining, consumer and housing matters, educational problems, public assistance, and family law matters, such as the termination of parental rights. Upon retiring from AppalReD in 2002, he founded the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, to specifically address coal-related environmental, health and safety matters.
Rosenberg remains highly active in his community. His adopted hometown of Prestonsburg has named a new town square — Rosenberg Square — for him and his wife, with a mural that showcases some of their history. Rosenberg has served on the Kentucky Public Advocacy Commission since 1994, including as vice-chair. He is a past member of the Board of Governors of the Kentucky Bar Association, where he has chaired the Donated Legal Services Committee, the Education Law Section and the Public Interest Law Section. He has served on the Pro Bono Committee of the American Bar Association and recruited lawyers to assist low-income persons on a pro bono basis. He has also served on the Board of Regents of Morehead State University, the visiting committee of the UK law school and the stakeholder advisory board for the UK Center for Appalachian Research in Environmental Sciences (UK-CARES). His activities since 1970 and his work in the state’s legal system have improved the lives of thousands of Kentuckians.
As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.
In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.