An 1880s College Romance: Eminent Classicist Francis Kelsey and Belle Badger Kelsey
February’s Valentine’s Day suggests “digging for” some new story of local romance. Once again, a new book discusses the Lake Forest “apprenticeship” or early formative years of a notable figure: The Life and Work of Francis Willey Kelsey: Archaeology, Antiquity, and the Arts by John Griffiths Pedley, published at the end of 2011 by University of Michigan Press.
By the 20th century a leading archaeologist and educator at Michigan, young Kelsey (1858–1927)—in Lake Forest from 1880–1889—proved himself as a teacher, scholar, and educational thinker at Lake Forest University and also met his spouse, an excellent undergraduate student, Mary Isabelle Badger, or Belle, in the University’s Collegiate Department Class of 1884. Belle arrived at Lake Forest from southwestern Michigan and ably covered the curriculum in three years. By the spring of 1882, in her first year, she was taking a Latin course with the 23-year-old Francis Kelsey. As author John G. Pedley observes, “Proximity and a shared appreciation of the Roman world brought [Belle] and Francis Kelsey together; and one thing led to another” (p. 32). For the more than four decades between their 1886 marriage and Francis’ death in 1927, this shared purpose made them a warm and unusually well-traveled and successful couple.
Kelsey, the son of a north central New York farmer, was a “self-made,” Type A personality pioneer scholar, educated at the University of Rochester, New York, near his home. In 1880, he and Lake Forest University were a great fit: Under an innovative president, Rev. Daniel S. Gregory, interested in curricular innovations of the period (modern languages, English, etc.), Kelsey quickly carved a niche for himself publishing startlingly new illustrated Latin textbooks of familiar texts (Cicero, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and Lucretius), with exciting-for-the-student new emphasis on culture and art, political and historical context. These were not just dry texts to be translated by drowsing students driven to hunt up “ponies,” or published translations to do the heavy lifting: Caesar’s account begins, “Gaul is quartered into the three halves....” His edition of Caesar in 1886 (the year of Chicago’s Haymarket Square Riot, a struggle between owners and workers that boiled over into bloodshed), introduced lively color plates of soldiers’ uniforms, maps, and portraits—regularly reprinted through 1900. Teenagers, especially boys, used to being bored in Latin class, could imagine the life of an ancient Roman warrior campaigning across France and confronting warrior Germans to the east, like the Chicago anarchists perhaps. This, along with Kelsey’s charismatic teaching, energetic support of Presbyterian education, articles, and editing of the Lake Forest University Review in 1882–83, led to a growing national reputation and an irresistible call to the larger, more established University of Michigan by 1889.
But for most of his time in Lake Forest, Kelsey knew and eventually married and lived with Belle, by her senior year Isabelle Badger, and by 1886, Mrs. Kelsey. She was from a prosperous Niles, Michigan family, and active on campus. She also wrote articles for the Lake Forest University Review, on classic and on social justice issues (the latter, on Chinese immigration). For the 1886-married Kelseys, this shared commitment to scholarship and social and religious concerns created a bond that withstood their increasing physical separation as Francis’ budding career took him abroad for travel and archaeology in the 1890s and 1900s, while Isabelle anchored a home life in Ann Arbor for three children born in those years—two daughters, and a health- and school-challenged son. They also had a much-loved summer place at nearby Lake Cavanaugh, near Chelsea, Michigan.
There, their shared commitments to work and family converged, and all gathered fruit, preserved it, and worked on upkeep, with the increasingly illustrious Francis helping with the basic cleaning. Isabelle and one or the other children also went on some of the expeditions, like one to Carthage, Tunisia, in the early 1920s. Isabelle also helped guide students around Greece with her shared interest and knowledge of the subject, as Pedley explained on a visit here.
We know all this about the couple because Francis kept a detailed diary from 1901–1927, the year of his death—the basis for most of Pedley’s well-written, fascinating new biography. Few couples’ lives are so well documented as was that of the Kelseys, so that the bonds created in youth, established by Pedley through research here and in Lake Forest records now online (the Review, 1880–83, and The Stentor, beginning in 1887), could be followed through the middle age of the young people thrown together here in 1881–82.
When Kelsey died in May 1927 at home during a pause in a busy, ambitious archaeological dig expedition program in the Mediterranean area, he left a vast accumulation of artifacts and papyri squirreled away in University of Michigan campus corners. He’d called for a museum there on campus to house these treasures, though in vein. But in death, the University of Michigan—Pedley suggests—was forced to come to grips with the significance of the holdings, to repurpose a building to house them, and by 1953, indeed, to name it for Kelsey. Today, it stands also as a memorial to a unique collaborative life with Lake Forest University 1884 alumna Isabelle Badger Kelsey, whose supportive contributions and shared enthusiasm made possible this exceptional academic life, career, and legacy in a Francis Kelsey Museum. Their Lake Forest romance yielded a lasting archive of publications, papers still being explored as in these diaries, and one of the great museums of ancient Greek and Roman archaeology in this country.
—Arthur H. Miller