In Honor of Kevin P. Kelly

Kevin Kelly was an Omohundro Institute postdoctoral fellow from 1973–1975.

The following excerpt is from a tribute written by Cathleene Hellier


Dr. Kevin P. Kelly was a kind and generous scholar and one of my mentors in Colonial Williamsburg’s former Department of Historical Research under the direction of Dr. Cary Carson. When I first met him, Kevin was one of the principal investigators of the York County Project, the prosopographical urbanization study of colonial York County, Virginia, while I was one of a team of records transcribers, but he made us feel that what we did every day was important. He was a firm believer that the biographies and analysis generated by this project would not only be of infinite use to Colonial Williamsburg’s interpretation of colonial life, but that the YCP would be an important contribution to Chesapeake scholarship. He was right on both counts. Almost forty years later, YCP materials continue to inform Colonial Williamsburg’s programming, and YCP data and analysis have been used not only by Kevin and the other investigators who produced them, but by many, many students and scholars for theses, dissertations, articles, and books. Kevin always had the ability to look through both a lens focused on small details, and one that viewed the bigger picture and the large context.

His extensive reading was legendary. The tragedy of his dementia is that it destroyed a really amazing mind. Kevin remembered everything he ever read and was incredibly generous about pointing the rest of us to secondary sources we had never seen or couldn’t quite remember. You could stop by his very organized office and say something like, “Uh, Kevin, I’m trying to find an article I read maybe five years ago—can’t remember the author—but it was about x. Do you know which one that was?” And he would know. He could tell you the author, the journal, the issue, the argument—all of it. And he likely had it in his office because he had an amazing periodical collection in there, alongside his very impressive collection of books. Google has nothing on the search services Kevin provided his colleagues pre-internet.

Kevin was especially good at analyzing and digesting massive amounts of data into a report that was focused and informative. One of the first projects I did in Historical Research after leaving the York County Project was a population study of a Williamsburg “census” probably compiled by a local doctor during the smallpox epidemic of the late 1740s. Kevin and I worked on it together using the census and the York County Project files to take a “snapshot” of the Williamsburg population at the middle of the eighteenth century. He guided this novice while letting me contribute my own ideas and methods. Of all the projects I have done at CW, it is one of my favorites (despite involving a lot of new social history math) because Kevin taught me how a picture of a community could emerge from numbers, columns, tables, and statistics.

I was grateful when he agreed to act as my thesis advisor. Long conversations about the development of Williamsburg helped shape my thesis. He asked all of the right questions, and he had seemingly endless patience and excitement when mentoring and teaching. He was enthusiastic and generous with anyone who wanted to pursue history at the Foundation and at the College.

His departure from Colonial Williamsburg was devastating to his colleagues. We left his office as he left it, for years. I think that, out of respect and fondness, we just didn’t want it to change.