Kansas Rep. Russ Jennings dies at 66 after battle with cancer

By: - October 27, 2021 3:22 pm

Rep. Russ Jennings died Wednesday after a battle with Cancer at the age of 66. Jennings served as chairman of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican who was a leader on juvenile justice and law enforcement issues in the Kansas House, died Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 66.

House Speaker Ron Ryckman Jr. announced Jennings’ death in a letter to representatives.

“Over the past few months, he has fought hard through treatments and embraced every minute with his family,” Ryckman said. “Every time we talked after a treatment, he was motivated and inspired to fight this thing, to enjoy life and to finish out his term. But God had other plans.”

In 2016, he ran against Ryckman for House Speaker.

“It was no secret that Russ and I had our differences,” Ryckman said. “But his character was such that we could disagree on an issue and still have a laugh and a mutual respect for each other at the end of the day.”

Before running for office, Jennings served as a deputy sheriff, a magistrate judge, a juvenile detention center director and as commissioner of juvenile justice. He served on the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee during his time in the Legislature, including several years as chairman.

Gov. Laura Kelly directed flags lowered to half-staff on all state buildings, grounds, and facilities until sundown Sunday in honor of Jennings.

“I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Representative Russ Jennings. Russ and I shared a commitment to reforming the Kansas criminal justice system, particularly our juvenile justice system,” Kelly said. “His commitment to public service, his mastery of the subject matter, and his boundless tenacity made him a natural leader, well-respected by his colleagues and his constituents.”

Last July, Jennings announced he would not seek another term in the House to focus on his cancer treatments.

“As a judge, a state leader in juvenile justice, a transformational leader for crime victim support, and a state representative, Russ Jennings lived a life full of service and consequence,” said Attorney General Derek Schmidt. “Russ loved his family, his friends, Southwest Kansas, and our state, and Kansas is better for his leadership and service.”

Jennings’ wife, Judy, shared the news of the representative’s passing on Facebook.

“It is with great sadness we inform you of the death of our beloved husband and father,” she said. “He was loved and cherished by many. He is at peace and gained his wings into heaven.”

Jennings represented House District 122 in southwest Kansas, which covers parts of Greeley, Hamilton, Kearny, Finney, Grant and Haskell counties.

Jennings’ passing brought an outpouring of condolences and memories from legislators on both sides of the aisle.

“Since 2013 he has served his district with integrity and was attentive to the needs of his community,” said House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita. “On numerous occasions we worked together to pass bipartisan wins for the people of Kansas. I send my condolences to his family and friends. Russ was a fighter and he fought to the end.”

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said Jennings was a principled leader who cared deeply for his community and looked for ways to serve Lakin and the state of Kansas at every turn. Jennings was known for his “depth of knowledge and the care and compassion he showed towards everyone,” Moran said.

Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Lenexa Democrat, said he remembers Jennings first as the proud father of two daughters.

“It has been an honor serving alongside Rep. Russ Jennings,” Woodard said. “This is a painful loss for Kansas. Cancer sucks.”

Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Wichita Republican, said Jennings was a voice for western Kansas every day in the Legislature.

“I enjoyed learning from him while serving together on the House Judiciary Committee,” he said. “His voice will definitely be missed in Topeka.”

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.