Paul Kelly — the famed Kelly of the Kelly Writers House — recently became a victim of COVID-19. This virus has claimed so many generous, talented, effective people that it is hard to memorialize each in any way commensurate with what they did to help us. For many of us in the Writers House community, it is nearly inconceivable that a person of such vitality, such dynamic intellectual energy and enthusiasm as Paul — whose many (and more or less constant) venturesome ideas sought to make the Writers House better and more responsive as a space and an organization — could possibly now be still.
Paul didn’t quite invent the Writers House. When he first saw it, its community was already, in a nascent way, in action. In 1996 he was working with Penn administrators and fundraisers to find a new University project getting started in an interesting space. He wanted to get behind something that might potentially have a positive effect on people across campus, that might bring together undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni, and those from the various schools and degree programs. He walked into the unrenovated 1851 house, heard the sounds of a free jazz group playing in the Arts Cafe, saw people talking about poetry on the old green couch in the living room, smelled the smells of cookies baking in the kitchen, observed that the placed needed some serious fixing up, and within an hour had pledged to make a gift that would transform the house. Enabled by Paul’s instinct and generosity, major reconstruction of the Tudor-style cottage took place in 1997, maintaining its original Samuel Sloan design and idea but updating everything. The renovation set aside space for students to do their creative work, and made way for the networked wiring that would soon make the Writers House one of the first spaces on campus that would make its events available online.
When the house grandly reopened in December 1997, with an official relaunch celebration attended by Paul, his wife Nancy, and his family, and by Writers House-affiliated students, community writers, faculty, staff — including deans, the President, and the Provost — it was declared, to huge applause and cheers, that the project would henceforth be called the Kelly Writers House (in honor of Paul’s parents, Thomas and Rita). From that day forward, Paul’s generosity to Penn, which has included many other areas of support as well — undergraduate financial aid, athletics, the School of Arts and Sciences, the Fine Arts program in the School of Design — would be known and acknowledged by every one of the thousands of people who walked into the house at 3805 Locust Walk, joined its events, drank its coffee, read books on its inviting couches, or met a writer they admired.
Paul never stopped working with the people of the Writers House to come up with new ideas, ways of broadening the reach of its programs, establishing partnerships that would bring in more exciting writers and artists. He especially supported the development of webcasts, the archive of recordings of seminars and workshops made available online, the studio space for even more digital production, and eventually regular livestreaming. The plaque honoring his original gift quotes Emily Dickinson, her idea that has become anthemic at the house, the gist of which is this: to dwell in the house of possibility depends on occupying oneself with “this,” with whatever you are doing in this space now.
In 1999, Paul proposed the creation of an annual series of three major programs, connected to an undergraduate course to be held inside the Writers House, that would feature extended visits by eminent writers. This became the Kelly Writers House Fellows program, which Paul and Nancy have funded with a generous grant each year for twenty-two years. The “Fellows” program has enabled students to learn directly from — and to spend hours of informal time with — writers such as Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, June Jordan, Robert Creeley, Tony Kushner, John Edgar Wideman, John Barth, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid, Joan Didion, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Rosanne Cash, and others. The Fellows program is about creating surprising intellectual intimacy, a sense of connectedness aligned with the feel of the old house itself, between students and writers so famous that the students could not have imagined the freedom to ask them difficult questions and receive thoughtful, honest answers. Kelly Writers House Fellows has been an experiment in creating a learning community that starts with the student and extends to an eminence, rather than the other way around. This idea is vintage Paul Kelly.
Paul, who graduated from Penn in 1962, loved the University. He served on its Board of Trustees for many years, and was for some years a member of the School of Arts and Sciences Board of Overseers. He was active with the Athletics Department and the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business. His creative ideas about how to secure matching funds in support of undergraduate financial aid are credited with helping to cause a huge resurgence of funds aiding students whose families could not otherwise afford tuition.
Paul was my friend. We talked several times each month for nearly all of the twenty-five years the Writers House has existed. He visited the Writers House often and we met up in New York. The conversations always flowed with his ideas — some of them quite way out, true thought bubbles — and he always listened hard to those ideas which I conveyed from students and staff colleagues back home at his beloved 3805 Locust. His support was incessant. It was never habitual, but always hopeful and faithful. I knew he utterly believed in what we were doing, especially in reaching students whose learning styles did not flourish through the conventional curriculum. He once called the Writers House “the ultimate home for the extra-curriculum.” He firmly believed in the power and efficacy of a learner-centered learning community. When Paul was in the audience at a reading or talk, he was frankly less interested in what the talker in the front of the room had to say than in the questions and challenges that were posed by others. When proudly talking about the Writers House, he called this “the conversation.” That conversation goes on — sadly, without him, but it goes on, and his passion for hearing other voices persists too.
AL FILREIS is the Kelly Family Professor of English and Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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