Donald P. Kennedy dies at 93; led growth of First American title firm


First American Financial Corp. was known as Orange County Title Co. and had only one office when Donald P. Kennedy, fresh out of law school, joined the family firm in 1948.

When Kennedy began leading its expansion beyond the county lines in 1957, the title insurance company had annual sales of less than $1.5 million.

By 2006, First American was one of the world’s largest title insurers and was developing vast databases that helped transform the real estate industry. It had hundreds of offices in the United States and abroad and revenue topping $8 billion — an expansion attributed to Kennedy, who died Saturday at his home in Santa Ana after three years of declining health. He was 93.

“He saw the opportunity for growth and worked tirelessly,” said Parker Kennedy, Donald Kennedy’s son and successor as chairman of the Santa Ana firm. “The company couldn’t have had a better leader.”

While building First American, the elder Kennedy, along with his wife, Dorothy, also helped build dozens of community organizations.

A past chairman of the Orange County Business Committee for the Arts, Kennedy was a board member of South Coast Repertory and the Athletic Board at Stanford University. He was a keen supporter of the athletic and law programs at Chapman University in Orange, where the law school named a hall after him.

As board chairman at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, he was instrumental in negotiating partnerships with the Smithsonian Institution and the British Museum, greatly expanding the museum’s offerings to the public. His support for a major addition — the Dorothy and Donald Kennedy Wing — tripled the Bowers’ exhibit space.

Donald Parker Kennedy was the grandson of Charles Edward Parker, who formed the company in 1894. Born Oct. 16, 1918, in San Jacinto, Calif., Kennedy attended Santa Ana High School and Stanford University, where he played on the 1939 golf team that won an NCAA Division 1 championship and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1940.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to study law at USC before delving into the business of tracking property sales and assuring buyers that transactions weren’t clouded.

Shrewd and engaging, Kennedy gave his managers broad leeway in how they operated. That was important because real estate practices varied from region to region and the customer could be an attorney, real estate broker or lender depending on the location, his son said. It was far less expensive than micro-managing, more effective, and it also bred loyalty.

“He would pick a solid person, put them in charge somewhere and say, ‘You figure out how to get business — make a good profit and I’ll reward you,’ ” Parker Kennedy said. “And it worked.”

The elder Kennedy was named chairman emeritus of First American in 2003 but remained on its board until 2008, going to the office consistently until he was 90.

First American Financial Corp. split into separate public companies in 2010: First American Corp., which handles the original escrow and title business, and CoreLogic Inc., a real estate and consumer data provider. The companies’ combined stock-market value exceeds $3.4 billion.

Kennedy’s easygoing manner and ready humor benefited him at work and play, including on the golf course, where he recorded nine holes in one during a life devoted to the game.

Frank “Sandy” Tatum played alongside Kennedy on Stanford’s 1939 championship team, won the NCAA individual championship in 1942, and became a prominent attorney and president of the U.S. Golf Assn.

Kennedy “could do anything he set his mind to, and golf was one of those things,” said Tatum, 90, who played golf several times a year with his lifelong friend until they were well into their 80s.

Besides his son and his wife of 65 years, Kennedy is survived by two daughters, Elizabeth Myers and Amy Healey; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Services are pending.