Baldwin icon Kelley is named century’s top teacher
It was a night to remember Saturday and, especially, what a storied teaching history that Baldwin City icon Katharine Kelley represents.
There were 277 people packed into the Baldwin High School cafeteria for the annual BHS Alumni Banquet, which was about a dozen more than expected. They were there to celebrate their BHS roots, but mostly to pay homage to Kelley, who at 95 years of age was being honored as The Teacher of the Century for her 48 years in the Baldwin area elementary schools.
"I thought it was swell," said Kelley, who was born June 2, 1909 in a farm house north of Baldwin City. "I thoroughly enjoyed that. When they asked for my students to stand up, they popped up all over the place.
"It was a thrill," she said. "I was surprised that they did such a thing, but I enjoyed it."
BHS Alumni Secretary Linda Ballinger was the reader for a tribute written to Kelley. Ballinger said Kelley always wanted to be a science teacher and after graduating from Baker University in 1932, she continued to school at the University of Kansas, but soon discovered that "science was considered a 'man's' world."
From there, it was the history that developed from Kelley's years of teaching Baldwin elementary school children after a school board member "was so happy to get a college graduate that he hired her on the spot," said Ballinger.
"Her first school was Clearfield where she taught for two years -- 1934-36," Ballinger said. "She taught a total of 16 pupils the first year and 19 the second year. She was her own janitor and had to build the fire each day to keep the building warm.
"Her second school was at Hopewell," she said. "There she did not have to do the janitor work. She taught there from 1936 through 1940. She graduated a large class of eight students her first year there. During the four years there, she taught a total of 54 students.
"From there, she started teaching fourth grade in Baldwin Elementary," Ballinger said. "She taught 117 fourth graders in the next five years. From 1944 through 1974, she taught 805 fifth graders. My, that's a lot of children. A total of 1,002. Please stand if you number one of these fourth or fifth graders."
That's when Kelley saw all of them "popping up all over the place." There were about 40 students that stood from the 1944 through 1974 years. But, there were two that stood from that first class in Clearfield. They are Dolores Deekwa Kalb and Imogene Selzer Scales. Those two really caught Kelley's eye.
"That was amazing," said Kelley. "They were my first first graders. I practiced on them."
Kelley was lauded for her many other long-time contributions to the Baldwin area, too. In 1989, she was honored in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for her active role in preserving and recording the Santa Fe Trail. In 1996, she was honored by former students of the Hopewell School. In 2004, the Kansas Ornithological Society presented her with the Ivan Boyd Service Award. But, that's not all.
"She was surprised and honored in January of 2005 by the Missouri Outfitters of the Santa Fe Trail, when they named her as the first recipient of the chapter's 'Outstanding Achievement Award' for her promoting, marking and preserving of the Santa Fe Trail," Ballinger said.
The awards keep coming and another one will be bestowed on May 22 at Baker University's commencement when she'll be given an honorary degree. Kelley has also volunteered countless hours to the Baldwin City Library and to the preservation of both the Vinland-Coal Creek and Baldwin communities' history.
She's got her own spot in that history and many of the stories were shared Saturday night. One involved the Coal Creek School, where she and all of her family attended. Kelley, like most students there, carved their initials in the limestone walls.
"I remember using a big, old rusty nail," she said. "I scraped and scraped and scraped and scraped. I don't think the teacher cared. Everybody did it. Those initials, KBK, were 3 or 4 inches tall. I must have worked for days."
But, a nasty storm came through the area and a tornado leveled many houses and the Coal Creek School. Well, most of it, anyway.
"The storm took down house after house after house," Kelley said. "I had heard that the school was gone, too. I drove out there and, sure enough, it was flattened. But, there was part of one wall standing and my stone was at the top."
Ballinger told the rest of the story at Saturday's fete.
"There was a neighbor man there that she told her story to; he insisted she should have it," Ballinger said of the initialed stone. "She told him she couldn't because it wasn't hers. He did not pay any attention. He just picked it up and put it in her car. She now has it in her own personal museum in her home in Baldwin."
That stone is treasured by Kelley, much as the accolades she keeps receiving show the community treasures her.