Childhood friend of Harry S. Truman
and Bess (Wallace) Truman.
Oral History Interview with
June 11, 1976
James R. Fuchs
MR. FUCHS: Mrs. Keeley, to start, I'd like to have you sketch briefly your background, if you will, for the benefit of researchers.
MRS. KEELEY: I was born in a little house on Pendleton Avenue. My father was John Gallatin Paxton; my mother was Mary Neal Gentry. My mother came from Boone County from an old pioneer family. My father was the son of General E. F. Paxton, who was commanding the Stonewall Brigade when he was killed. Why my father stopped in Independence I never knew. He decided to come West. Everything was dead in Virginia after the war.
FUCHS: What year were you born?
KEELEY: I was born June 2, 1886.
FUCHS: On Pendleton Avenue, in Independence, Missouri?
KEELEY: Yes, I thought I'd better tell you that. I think the house still has a stone wall in front of it.
FUCHS: Fine. You can go ahead with your account.
KEELEY: I was the first born, and when I was five we moved. My father built the house on 614 Delaware Street. It was a brown, shingled house--it's since been painted white and made into apartments, I think. I lived there until--we used to visit in Virginia--but I lived there until I went away to work.
FUCHS: You started to school while you were living in that house?
FUCHS: What year did you start to school?
KEELEY: I had a brother, Frank, who was a year younger,
and my father kept me out a year so that I could start school with Frank; I was seven. We went to kindergarten on the grounds, in this old brick house--used to be called the Presbyterian Ladies College--and that's where my mother taught, and taught elocution, they called it then. My father met her. Her sisters came up to Kansas City to teach, and she came up and taught in this private school. My aunt, Sarah Gentry Elston, taught at Manual in Kansas City. It was an experiment in education then, so I went to high school in Kansas City.
FUCHS: But you went to a private school in grade school?
KEELEY: Oh, no, it was kindergarten. The public schools were very poor, but my father's great friend was a woman who ran this Presbyterian Ladies College. We didn't know anybody who went to public school. But my father surprised us by saying he was going to send Frank and me to public school because unless people like them (my mother and father)
sent their children to public schools, the public schools would never be any better. Well, unlike most times, he paid no attention to what we wanted to do and so we went to the Ott School. I don't know how long Mrs. Truman went there. Then, there was another private school, the Woodland College, which was Campbellite, we called it in those days; called the Christian Church today. She went to the Ott School when I did, how long I'm not sure. She had a brother, Frank, who was my age. Then my brother, Frank, was a year younger than I was. I remember going to school with them, so I'm sure that we all went to the Ott School together.
FUCHS: Then after you got out of Ott, you went to Manual?
KEELEY: I went to Manual Training High School in Kansas City, where I graduated in 1904.
FUCHS: Was that a four-year school?
KEELEY: Yes. It's a trade school now, but it was a new experiment in education then and my aunt
taught there. I think that had something to do with my being sent there. The high school in Independence was about two rooms in the Ott School, and my father always wanted the best for us. In fact, once he sent me to a Latin tutor when I was about ten. He was a product of the old Latin grammar school in Virginia. Then, my mother sent me one summer to a German woman for lessons. They believed in education.
FUCHS: This was a summer while you were in high school?
KEELEY: No, before.
FUCHS: Before. While you were in Ott, then?
KEELEY: My mother was sick and we were in Colorado three years. Everybody had to go away then; she had tuberculosis. Then my mother and father decided they just couldn't be separated any longer. I never saw two people who loved each other more than they did.
FUCHS: What did you do when you got out of high school?
KEELEY: When I got out of high school, my father said I knew enough and I would get married anyway. I don't know why, but I was there a year--I just kept house, that was after my mother died. She died in 1903. In my way I kept house. The cook did some of it, my father did some, and I did some of it.
FUCHS: Were you still living on Delaware?
KEELEY: Yes, that was where my father and mother lived and died and my brother Edward died. We were five children, Frank, Elizabeth (Lib, we called her), Matthew, and Edward. Frank and Edward are dead; but my sister, Elizabeth, is quite a fine artist. She lives in Wyoming and my brother, Matthew, is retired to San Francisco.
Then I went to Hollins College in Virginia for a year. Then my father married again, married an old sweetheart. She had two children when she married him.
Then he said that I could go to the University of Chicago that summer with my cousin, so I
went up there. By that time I wanted to study journalism and they said, "Well, we don't teach it, but they're going to start a school in a year at the University of Missouri."
So, in the middle of the school year, in 1908, I was sitting on the doorstep waiting for this school of journalism to start.
FUCHS: You only went to Chicago?
KEELEY: A summer term. But I was taking some work while I was sitting on the doorstep, waiting for the Jay School (as it is called now) to open.
Then, I had known Charlie in Independence very little, because Independence was divided by churches.
FUCHS: That's Charlie Ross?
KEELEY: Yes, and I'd had one date with him. Then when I got into the School of Journalism, to my surprise, he was teaching in it. So, I dated him and at the end of that year we were engaged. Then when I graduated--they made us say "was
graduated"--so when I was graduated from the School of Journalism, we had Journalism Week and Winifred Black, who was one of Hearst's great writers, came down to speak, and she said to me, "What are you going to do?"
"Be a reporter where I can get a job."
She said, "I'll have Charlie (Charlie Bonfils) give you a job."
Charlie was the brother of Fred Bonfils, and so I worked on the Post. I was the first woman reporter in Kansas City and was a curiosity. The Star wouldn't take a woman. They had a contempt for journalism schools. You know, schools of journalism didn't have any standing at all at first and newspapermen laughed at them, and to think now they can't fill the demand for their students. Times have changed.
So, then I worked on the Post a year...
FUCHS: This would be about what year?
KEELEY: I graduated in 1910. I graduated on Tuesday
and went to work on Monday. Well, I worked for A. B. McDonald--Charlie Bonfils gave me the job--but A. B. McDonald was the city editor, and as I went in the door this fellow I knew from the University was working there in the summer and he said, "Well, if there's anything McDonald hates worse than a cub reporter, it's a woman reporter. You'll get fired."
But it happened that he got fired before the summer was over for bringing a libel suit on the paper.
I worked there until one day, fifteen months later, on the streetcar I got an acute appendicitis attack and had to get back to Independence. One of my friends who had just graduated from medical school, Elmer Twyman, who became a fine surgeon, asked me, "When I get to be a doctor are you going to have me?"
I said, "Certainly not."
Well, he was the person who was right there and he did it. I wasn't well enough to go back
to work, so I went down--this is about the time I broke up with Charlie Ross--so I got skinnier and skinnier and went to Battle Creek and then spent two winters in Mississippi.
KEELEY: In the Mississippi Delta, out near Greenville, on a plantation with my cousin. And that was kind of a revelation, that kind of a civilization. Well, anyhow, then I came back and by that time I was ready to go to work again; so I consulted Walter Williams, who was the Dean who started the school, said, "You have to be a specialist. Nobody that knows anything about home economics can write; nobody that can write knows anything about home economics, so you go get a degree in home economics."
So, I went to Chicago University and was there nearly a year, and these jobs kept coming up begging for people to go into home demonstration work, into extension work. And it sounded kind of adventurous to me, so I went--well, there were two
things when I was on the Post that I did: One, as you remember in the story, I went up in a kite. I guess I'm the only woman in the world fool enough to go up in a kite. [This is in reference to a feature article in the Kansas City Times, June 1, 1966, about Mary Paxton Keeley in connection with her 80th birthday.] And then, old Joe Ward sent me, he was one of Hearst's men, then one of Bonfils' men in Denver and they wanted to blow up the State Reform School at Chillicothe, so I spent several months on that story--I don't mean to give you too much of this stuff. The only man in Chillicothe not afraid of the woman I was trying to expose said, "This woman (head of the school) knows that you're here and you are in physical danger; you'd better get out."
I said, "Well, I'm not going to get out." So, a man I know was building the courthouse got me to go to a hardware store one night and I bought a pistol, which I didn't even know how to shoot. Then I did shoot it off in my sleep in a Pullman car once, but that doesn't belong in this story.
I was going down to Mississippi.
When I did all I could on this story--this woman was so powerful politically, that we simply couldn't get her out--but we did get a good education system reorganized at the school. I woke up one night in a cold sweat when I was down there and thought, "Here's what this woman was doing." She was training prostitutes. She would tell them "You're bad or you wouldn't be here and you never will be anything but bad girls." And the State of Missouri was paying $60,000, and she'd have somebody from one of these bawdy houses in Kansas City, when they'd graduate from the school, meet the girl and she'd turn them loose in the city with one dollar. And the girl from the house would tell her, "Come on to our house."
And she'd say, "Well, I'll try something else first." But you couldn't try something else very long on one dollar.
Well, I thought there was just no good in the world if we couldn't get that woman out. So. I did everything I could. I had a signed
story on the front page of the Post every day, but my father said, "Well, you may not think you've done much, but it will never be as bad again." Actually I was in physical danger.
So, then I went and stayed with my cousins in Mississippi; my father had been down there as a young man as a tutor. It was a patriarchal kind of a society, great plantations, and all the bad Negroes were sold down the river, to the cotton fields. They'd shoot each other over five cents. Well, it was a new kind of a thing to me--a new civilization. But they were very charming people. But it was a little hard for me to get used to.
Then I went to Walter Williams and asked him how to proceed. I was going to New York before I got the appendicitis but I've always been sorry that I didn't have a little while there (though I hate New York) in big city journalism.
Then I went first to Alabama and then to Virginia in extension work with the 4H Clubs. It was really interesting. You drove around the
county all the time. I had twenty agents under me. When I left Virginia, I made up my mind to go to war. My family had always gone to wars. Two of my brothers couldn't go, they were married and had children, but one did. But they had a rule that you couldn't go too, if you had a father or a brother in the war. So, I said, "Well, I know I'm going." So, I went down to see a man I knew who was in charge of recruiting YMCA women canteen workers. He said, "You get ready to go and I think something will happen to change the rule."
So, they called me to Richmond, Virginia--and this probably doesn't belong in this at all--but the elegant Virginia ladies said, "Miss Paxton has been recommended by Miss Ella Agnew, and her grandfather was General Paxton, killed at Chancellorsville; her maternal ancestors are from Virginia," and then nobody said anything so, I said to these ladies, "Would you like to know why I think I ought to go to France?" And they said, "Yes," and I told them. They paused and I said, "Well,
do you think I ought to know why I'm capable of going?"
"Yes." So I told them. And then they said they didn't need to talk to me anymore.
Right then the rule was changed about going. But I had looked down and the only four-leaf clover I ever saw in my life I found about that time. So I went over. In the meantime, I'd be come engaged to Edmund Burke Keeley. He was in extension work too. He was very deaf and he couldn't go to war. He came to New York and he brought me a portable phonograph, first one I ever saw, to take with me, and records, all proved useful. And he said, "Suppose we get married and have a son, and what will you tell him when his mother went to war and his father didn't?"
I said, "Tell him the truth that you couldn't go." He was the first man to volunteer in Halifax County.
So, the sequel to that was, when my son was about eight, somebody came to me and said, "Pax said his father didn't go to war because he had
a sprained ankle." So I knew then I ought to tell him, so I did.
So, then he said with great relief, "Oh, then, he wasn't a coward."