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Influential anthropologist, inspiring professor

Prof. Gail M. Kelly ’55

A picture of Gail Kelly

Gail M. Kelly ’55, an influential figure in the field of anthropology, and professor emerita at Reed College, died Wednesday, August 17, 2005, in Portland.

Rigorous, disciplined, iconoclastic, Miss Kelly (as she preferred) was the quintessential sink-or-swim professor. She pushed her students to the limit of their ability, brooked no compromise, and suffered no fools. She sewed her own clothes, never drove a car, and was known to scold students for wearing white after Labor Day. She also inspired several generations of Reed students to pursue anthropology.  

Kelly was born in Deer Park, Washington. She attended Oakley Green School, and Jefferson and Lincoln high schools in Portland. She began her study at Reed while still in high school in summer 1949, formally enrolling in fall 1951. Following her first year of coursework, she identified her ambition to study anthropology and to teach.

Kelly graduated from Reed, Phi Beta Kappa, with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 1955. Utilizing her fieldwork with the Warm Springs Reservation, she wrote her senior thesis on "Themes in Wasco Culture." She won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship for graduate study at the University of Chicago, where she studied anthropology, lectured, taught, and worked as a research assistant. In 1957, she completed academic requirements for a Master of Arts; her topic of research was "Northwest Coast Stratification." She followed that study with doctoral research on "Ghanaian Intellectuals," earning her PhD in 1959, after which she did postdoctoral research in Ghana and England, utilizing a Ford Foundation foreign area training fellowship.

In 1960, she accepted a position as instructor in anthropology at Reed; she was promoted to the position of associate professor in 1967, and full professor in 1973. Kelly’s professional interests included the history of theory; the anthropology of marketing and consumption patterns in non-Western world; symbolism, especially related to clothing, decoration, and ornamentation; the study of traditional religions and religious specialists; and modernization and social stratification in emerging societies.

During her tenure at Reed, she chaired several major committees, including the educational policies committee. She was committed to the support of academic standards that would keep Reed firmly established—she stated—as "a place where scholarly activity in the Western Humanistic and scientific traditions is valued above all things."

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kelly’s graduation from Reed, a symposium, "Fashioning Anthropology: Papers in Honor of Gail Kelly," was held at Reed in April. Attendees included nationally recognized individuals in the field of anthropology, who were former students and colleagues of Kelly, and the current generation of anthropology graduates, meeting to discuss changing styles of anthropological inquiry.

Kelly was considered to be a demanding teacher, whose meticulous and pedagogical approach to academics reflected her lifelong pursuit of excellence in her field. She inspired generations of students during her 40-year career at Reed.

Here are some quotes about her from her students and colleagues:

Chip Krakoff ’78: Gail Kelly’s knowledge of modern jazz and love of Cecil Taylor’s music reflected her formidable intellect nearly as much as did her prowess in anthropology. Thanks to her influence as my faculty adviser, I majored in anthropology, a choice I have never regretted.

Prof. Ray Kierstead [history 1978–2000]: The attitudes of many of the men hired at Reed in the late 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s were those of that era. I noticed that some of the faculty titans seemed uncomfortable around intellectual women. The great exception to the rule was Gail Kelly, who inspired respect, awe, and terror in all who knew her.

Prof. Peter Steinberger [poli sci 1973–]: There were the “barons” of the faculty when I first arrived, and they were extremely impressive, very smart, but very intimidating and very tough. I feared them. In many cases I admired the fact that they were not only committed to the ethos of the college, but they also understood and lived it. They lived the idea of rigor and of quality and of seriousness: “If you’re going to come to Reed and screw around, get out! That’s not what you’re here for. You’re here to study and study hard and to enjoy it while doing it.”

Bruce Livingston ’65: Gail Kelly was my advisor. A real tough cookie. As thesis time was approaching, she called me aside one afternoon at the end of class:

“Mr. Livingston, a word please.”

“Yes, Miss Kelly?”

“I have just looked at Mr. Weisner’s thesis”—Tom Weisner ’65 was the hero of the department—“Judging from the state of his thesis, I dare not imagine the state of yours. By five o’clock this afternoon, I would like to see you at my house with your typewriter and all your notes, and you will stay there until your thesis is finished.”

So, I lived there at her house for the next four days. On the third day of being incarcerated, I was upstairs working away, and I heard this knock on her front door and looked out. There was a cluster of my cohorts standing outside. Miss Kelly opened the door, “Yes?”

“Miss Kelly, can Bruce come out and play?”

“Not yet.”

Larry Large [admin 1982–99]: There were those who said that we shouldn’t create “neo-nannyism,” a term that I believe was coined by Gail Kelly. She was not convinced that the college ought to invest in auxiliary services for students, that instead everything ought to be focused on the intellectual, cognitive development of the students.

Leslie Scalapino ’66: Gail Kelly had incredible fashion sense, and sewed her own high-fashion clothes. I liked her tremendously despite the fact that she was so disbelieving in women’s abilities, which was just uncalled for.

David Conlin ’88: Gail Kelly... didn’t like me very much, but I certainly admired her knowledge and her understanding of her subject, even though I was afraid of her. She had a British affectation in her speech, and once told me that she was to be called “Miss Kelly,” because anthropologists in the British tradition are called “Miss” and “Mr.” They were never “Gail” or “Professor Kelly.” She called her students by their last names. “Mr. Conlin,” she said once, “you are anti-intellectual.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that was code for something akin to being a fascist.

Christopher Roth ’90: To Reed alumni such as myself, and scores of others who learned from Gail Kelly and went on to careers in anthropology, her legacy endures as an abiding, almost daily, influence on how we see the world. She gave nearly her entire adult life to Reed, to anthropology, and to her students. Gail Kelly lives on through our memories of her and through her influence on her students—and her students’ students, and so on—amounting to an enormous cumulative effect on the discipline of anthropology... Learning is, and often should be, hard. Gail Kelly embodied that central aspect of the Reed experience more iconically than anyone else. She is unforgettable and irreplaceable.

Appeared in Reed magazine: November 2005

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