In Honor of Kevin P. Kelly

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

The following is a tribute written by Julie Richter.


I had the good fortune to work with Kevin Kelly in Colonial Williamsburg’s Department of Historical Research and from my first day he treated me as a colleague who was ready to participate in the department’s work, not as someone who had just finished her MA coursework in American Studies at William & Mary and had no idea how to be a historian. I soon realized that I had much to learn. Kevin helped me to see the many ways in which our department’s work on the York County Project provided interpreters in the Historic Area with details about the lives of the many different people—enslaved, indentured, or free; Native, European, or African—who lived and labored in eighteenth-century Williamsburg. This information helped interpreters shift from a focus on Virginia’s founding fathers to an interpretation grounded in social history that included discussion about the ways in which gender and race shaped life. Kevin shared his thoughts and ideas in many conversations and in the numerous memos, notes, and white papers he wrote. His handwritten notes remain a challenge to read and I often find it harder to read his writing than that of Virginia’s seventeenth-century county clerks. That said, I have never regretted taking time to decipher his comments because I always learned something from these notes.

When I returned to graduate school at William & Mary for a PhD in American History, I took an independent study class with Kevin and it was during these discussions that I fully realized two things about Kevin. First, I saw that Kevin, a historian of the colonial Chesapeake, was a scholar who read books and articles that focused on people who never set foot in Virginia or Maryland because he wanted to learn everything he could about all of colonial America and the Atlantic World. A quick confession—I did not set foot in Swem Library during my last semester of classes because Kevin had all of the books I needed to read on his shelf and Swem did not. Second, it became clear to me that Kevin read everything he read because he wanted to be the best teacher that he could be. Kevin truly loved to teach, whether it was a training class for Colonial Williamsburg’s interpreters, students in the National Institute of American History and Democracy’s Pre-College Summer Program, or students at William & Mary. His face lit up as he challenged students to think about the complexities of the past and the importance of history.

Given his love of learning and teaching, it is especially cruel that Kevin struggled with Alzheimer’s and that this disease robbed him of his passion of sharing history with others. I think it important to remember that Kevin’s work at Colonial Williamsburg continues to inform the interpreters who teach the Foundations’ visitors each year. Also, I will remember Kevin as a scholar of Vast Early America before the term existed and I am a better historian because he generously shared his thoughts and insights.