Biographies | Asa Kent Jennings
Asa Kent Jennings was the second of six children born on September 20, 1877 to Hiram Jennings and Emma Carvy in Webster, Monroe County, New York. He attended several classes at Syracuse University before he began his career with the YMCA in Utica, Oneida County, New York.
Asa met Amy M. Will while working at the YMCA. They were married on August 5, 1902 in the home of the bride’s parents in Cleveland, Oswego County, New York. Together they had four children Ortha, born in 1903; Asa Will born in 1907, Wilber F. born in 1909 and Bertha M. born in 1914.
In 1904 Asa was diagnosed with Pott disease, acute tuberculosis of the spinal cord. It was believed that he would not survive. Asa spent several months in the Adirondacks seeking treatment. The regimen was difficult and painful. Eventually two infected vertebrae were removed. This shortened Asa’s height by five inches. In order to maintain the separation between the remaining vertebrae, Asa was required to wear a metal brace. After his recovery Asa returned to work at the YMCA.
In 1908, Asa became an ordained Methodist minister. He held pastorates in churches at several towns surrounding Utica, Oneida County, New York.
The Webster Museum website describes his significant humanitarian efforts as follows:
At the time of his graduation from the Webster Union Free School in 1899, few could have imagined the remarkable life that was before Asa Kent Jennings. After all, Asa was not in the best of health and his ambition was to become a methodist minister. Most would probably imagine him preaching to a small congregation in a sleepy little town somewhere in upstate
New York. For a time, that destiny may have been true, however events half a world away would eventually alter Asa’s path.
World War One erupted and drew the United States into the fray. To do his part, Asa joined the Red Cross and served in France until the close of the war. His experiences with the Red Cross eventually led him to a position with the YMCA.
The war drew to a close but much of the world was still in chaos. Asa’s work sent him to Smyrna which at the time was largely a Christian city on the western coast of Asia-Minor. Call it bad luck or destiny, 14 days after Asa and his family arrived in Smyrna, the Turkish army invaded the city. The Greek army quickly withdrew, leaving 350,000 Greek, Armenian and Jewish refugees trapped with no way out. The sea was to their west and the approaching Turkish army to their east. Homes were looted and set ablaze, while many were raped, tortured and killed. Scores of others drowned trying to reach foreign vessels anchored nearby. American and British warships were stationed off the coast to pick up their own fleeing citizens, but as neutral parties they were forced to stay clear of any additional involvement.
Asa sent his family home but remained behind to see how he could assist with the situation. He arranged for food supplies to be brought in to feed the refugees. Despite the danger, Asa was determined to prevent the impending massacre and at great risk to his personal safety traveled through the combat zone to arrange a meeting with Ataturk, the imposing and much feared Turkish leader. Amazingly, Asa was able to convince Ataturk to allow the refugees to leave Smyrna but was only given 11 days to find them a safe passage out of the country.
Asa contacted the Greek Government to encourage them to provide ships to pick up the refugees. The Greek government showed little enthusiasm for Asa’s request and was quite puzzled as to who he was. As Asa appeared to be the only American left in Smyrna, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Asa to identify himself as the top American official in Smyrna. After much persistence and threats to expose the Greek government’s inaction, the Greek government cabled that they were putting Asa in charge of 26 of their ships. Asa directed the ships into port under American flags and picked up the refugees within the 11 day window.
Word of Asa’s deeds reached other ports along the coast. Radio requests were made from those ports for their refugees to be helped. Asa spent much of the next year directing an expanded fleet of 55 ships to ports from the Black Sea to Syria. Over that year, Asa and his crews retrieved over 1.2 million refugees, many of whom would have faced certain death if they remained in Turkey.
Asa gained the respect of both the Greek and Turkish governments so after completing his time at sea, both governments used Asa to help negotiate prisoner exchanges between the two countries.
Asa stayed in Turkey following the conflict and helped to establish an organization similar to the YMCA, called “The Friends of Turkey.”
Webster Museum Website – Well Known Websterites
In 1922 Asa K Jennings was awarded the Golden Cross of St Xavier and the Greek Medal of Military Merit for his work in assisting Greek refugees in Asia.
For the next several years Asa spent half of his time each year in the United States and the other half in Turkey working with the American Friends of Turkey. He continued this work until his weakened heart no longer allowed him to. He retired to Winter Park Florida to enjoy a quiet rest with family. However, his dedication to humanitarian interest never subsided. On January 27, 1933 Asa was in Washington DC to confer with the Turkish authorities, he collapsed while walking near the White House and died on the way to the hospital. Asa Jennings and his wife Amu are buried in Cleveland Village Cemetery in Cleveland, Oswego County, New York.
- Webster Museum, Webster, NY, accessed July, 2020.
- Webster News (graduation class of 1899), Monroe County Mail, Fairport, NY April 27 1899 p3.
- “Personal” (marriage of Asa Jennings and Amy Will), Utica Observer, Utica, New York, July 24, 1902.
- “Greeks Honor Asa Jennings with Medals”, Utica Observer Dispatch, Utica, New York, December 27, 1922, p8.”
- Asa Jennings Succumbs at Florida Home”, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, New York, January 31 1933, p 12.
- “Death Takes Asa Jennings Humanitarian” Rochester Times-Union, Rochester, New York, January 31 1933, p 16.
- “Movie Short Tells of Heroism In Greece of Former Websterite”, Webster Herald, Webster, New York, April 24, 1947, p 1.
- Baker, Henry, “How a Y.M.C.A. Worker Achieved Fame”, Webster Herald, Webster, New York, May 29, 1947, p 3.
- 1880 Federal Census, Heritage Quest, July, 2020.
- 1892 Federal Census, Heritage Quest ,July, 2020.
- Find a Grave Asa Kent Jennings, accessed July, 2020.
- Ureneck, Lou, The GreatFire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide, Harper Collins, 2015.
- Phantis, Asa Jennings, accessed July, 2020.
- Strange Destiny , Adams, Les, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM], September 20, 1945.
- Waking the Lion [trailer], Jennings, Roger, accessed July 2020.
- Jennings, Roger, Waking the Lion, Xulon PRess Publication, 2015.