Gail Kelly demanded (and gave) much

By Alex Golub ’95

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Gail Kelly


Gail Kelly ’55, the woman who introduced me to anthropology, passed away in August. Professor Kelly (never “Gail”) is difficult to memorialize because, frankly, many disliked her — often intensely. Last spring, Thomas Strong ’94 and I organized a conference and received one email from a potential attendee who, decades after her graduation, declined to participate because “Ms. Kelly’s contribution to my academic education was stifling and intimidating.” But those of us who loved and feared her disagree.

She was legendary for scrupulous reading of classic texts. Our Social Theory course involved a minute examination of Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society as if it was holy writ. There were no secondary sources. We did not skim. We did not skip. We read books closely, and in their entirety. It was anything but dull. She viewed academe in highly personalistic, gossipy terms — a sort of Friendster avant le lettre — and her informal approach to formal tomes made them come alive.

It’s difficult to remember what I read for each class because I didn’t believe that I was reading “for” a class. At the conference, Rupert Stasch ’91 remarked on Professor Kelly’s penchant for vague syllabi. When he asked her why she wasn’t more specific, she said, “I consider you responsible for the entire literature.” Office hours consisted of me mentioning a topic, and her suggesting a book that I “might like to look into.” If I had read the book the next time we met, she would suggest another. If I hadn’t, her stony silence made it clear that she wondered why I bothered showing up. The result was a three-year uncredited independent study course. It was a total immersion in the life of the mind.

But in the end nothing was good enough for Professor Kelly. The idea that you could please her never occurred to me — the goal was simply to mitigate as much as possible my inevitable failure. Entire cohorts flunked the junior quals that she administered — and this was only the smallest part of the humiliation that one suffered at her hands. She combined a love of fashion with a condescending cool blondism, and in her presence I always felt I was violating secret rules of which only she was aware. Professor Kelly was the kind of person who could ruin my day by noting that I — a t-shirted Californian with long hair and mutton chops — was wearing white after labor day.

Cultural relativism never seemed feasible to Professor Kelly, because she considered everyone to be beneath her. She described hippyism as “hedonism if it has been invented by puritans” and opined that people spit in public “because they wanted to be disgusting.” Freshmen were simply inhuman. She freely “exoticized the other” because she hated to be bored. In fact I think she chose her advisees (she chose you, not the other way around) on this basis — it was certainly why she chose me. She had a keen eye for ethnographic detail that came from a lifetime of shopping, and mused on the totemic significance of bus signage. She would say of Southwest Portlanders, “We are people of the beaver,” suggesting with an arched eyebrow that there was something unpleasant about the inhabitants of Portland’s other quadrants.

Professor Kelly was the ultimate sink-or-swim professor, and my memory of her is ambivalent. Ultimately, however, I owe her more than I can blame her for. She showed me how to live the life of the mind, and taught me that people fail to achieve great things only because they believe they cannot. She gave me the ability to become whomever I wanted, and taught me how to use anthropology to do it. The last time I saw her, I wondered aloud at the beauty of Sellwood in the fall as if, despite my time at Reed, I was seeing it for the first time. “Yes,” she said quietly, “you don’t notice these things when you’re young, you know.” I felt then that I was indebted to her both for our shared past and a future I have yet to live through. It was the most human thing I ever heard her say.

Alex Golub ’95 earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and is now adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu.