As the first woman graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Mary Paxton Keeley blazed a trail for the countless female journalists who followed in her footsteps. She laughingly recalled, “When I was a little girl and about to grow up I used to pray, ‘Oh Lord, don’t let me have a dull life.’ My prayer was answered. Sometimes I thought the Lord overdid it.”
Early Years & Education
Born on June 2, 1886, in Independence, Missouri, to attorney John Gallatin Paxton and teacher Mary Neil Gentry, Mary Paxton graduated from Manual High School in Kansas City. Due to the death of her mother, however, she did not attend college immediately after graduation. Paxton briefly attended Hollins College in Virginia with the belief she would “get a good deal of culture.” She wryly observed, “But I came back not much improved.”
Paxton next spent a semester at the University of Chicago. It was there that she decided to study journalism but was disappointed to find that the school did not have a journalism program. When she learned that the University of Missouri was going to open a school of journalism, she left Chicago for Columbia. She later recalled, “I was sitting on the doorstep waiting for [the journalism school] to open.”
Missouri School of Journalism
She may not have realized it, but Paxton was about to make history. Veteran newspaperman and University of Missouri curator Walter Williams, aware of the need for formal journalism instruction, had long advocated for the creation of a school of journalism. Williams envisioned the professionalization of the field of journalism through a mix of classroom instruction and practical experience obtained by working on a student-produced community newspaper. In 1906 Williams finally convinced his fellow university curators to establish such a school. When the University of Missouri School of Journalism opened its doors on September 14, 1908, it was the first journalism school in the world.
After being admitted to the new program, Paxton was called to Columbia where she and her fellow students were greeted by the three-member faculty and the university president, A. Ross Hill. She remembered, “The president, being a forthright man, said he was glad to see us but could not talk about schools of journalism because he didn’t know anything about them. I have the impression that he really thought that we were all there ever would be and we might not be around the campus long.” After Hill finished his remarks, Williams, now dean of the journalism school, called on Paxton. She found that she “could only rise and stammer that I did not know any more about journalism schools than the president did. That brought a laugh.”
First Female Journalism Graduate
Because they were establishing the first journalism school, Williams and his faculty members found themselves in new territory. For one assignment, Professor Silas Bent sent Paxton to interview the mascot of a visiting team. The only problem was that the mascot was actually a bear cub. She later laughed, “He sent me out to interview the bear! So I had to translate the bear’s conversation.” As graduation approached, Williams gave Paxton the honor of selecting the color of the journalism school’s graduation tassel because she would be the first female journalism graduate. When Williams asked her what color she would like, Paxton replied, “Any old color as long as it is red.” The journalism school’s tassel remains red to this day.
Kansas City Post
By the time graduation arrived in 1910, Paxton was eager to “get out and get on a paper.” During the university’s first journalism week, she met Winifred Black Bonfils, a reporter and the wife of Charles Bonfils, manager of the Kansas City Post. Bonfils was one of the original “sob sister” journalists. When Paxton told Bonfils she did not know what she was going to do after graduation, Bonfils replied that her husband would give Paxton a job at the Post. Paxton remembered, “I graduated on Tuesday and went to work on Monday.” Her starting pay was $8 a week. Upon her arrival, Paxton discovered “a woman reporter was pretty rare west of the Mississippi. I became such a curiosity that people used to come into the office just to stare at me.” She did not stay in the office for long.
For one of her first assignments, Paxton attended a man-carrying kite demonstration in Kansas City for US Army officers from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She decided to go up in the kite, which “was just like a swing under an apple tree – a board like a swing.” Years later she remembered, “I got some elastic, and tied my skirts around my legs and then I borrowed a stocking cap from the photographer.” She flew so high that “people looked like the size of ants.” The next morning a photograph of Paxton in the kite was published in the Post. She recalled her “little brothers were so mad at me because I didn’t take them up with me in the kite, and my oldest brother, who was conventional, said ‘You really have disgraced the family.’”
Not all of her stories were fluff pieces or “sob sister” tales. Paxton engaged in muckraking journalism when she was sent to investigate the State Training School for Girls in Chillicothe, Missouri. While in Chillicothe a man warned her that the superintendent of the school, Angeline M. Clay, “knows that you’re here and you are in physical danger; you’d better get out.” According to Paxton, Clay was “training prostitutes. She would tell [girls at the school], ‘You’re bad or you wouldn’t be here and you never will be anything but bad girls.’ 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 for very long on one dollar.” Paxton wistfully remembered, “I did all I could on this story—this woman was so powerful politically, that we simply couldn’t get her out.”
During her time as a student, Paxton had been courted by Charles “Charlie” Ross, an acquaintance from Independence, and one of the first professors appointed to the journalism school. The two had an understanding that they would marry one day, but Ross was the sole means of support for his widowed mother and sisters, so the couple postponed their plans. After Paxton moved to Kansas City, the couple’s letters grew less frequent as she got caught up in the whirlwind of journalism. In 1913 Charles Ross married Florence Griffin. He later won a Pulitzer Prize before serving as President Harry Truman’s press secretary. Upon hearing the news of Ross’s marriage, Paxton went to visit family in Mississippi and then returned to Missouri to teach in an orphanage for a year.
World War I
She returned to Columbia to see Walter Williams who told her, “Nobody that knows anything about home economics can write, and, nobody who can write knows anything about home economics. That’s a good field.” Paxton took his advice and enrolled at the University of Chicago where she completed all but one semester of coursework. She then spent the next three and a half years in Alabama and Virginia doing extension work with 4- H clubs. Her time in the South was interrupted by World War I.
When the United States entered the conflict, Paxton declared, “I made up my mind to go to war.” By this time, she was engaged to Edmund Burke Keeley, a native of Virginia. Although he was the first man to volunteer for service in Halifax County, Virginia, Edmund was “very deaf and couldn’t go to war.” Paxton spent the next year and a half doing canteen work for the YMCA in France. On one occasion she went to see President Woodrow Wilson review American troops at Humes. She wrote in her diary, “The President wore a coon skin coat and a silk hat, not a very pretty combination.” Later when asked to write up discharge papers for a soldier, she observed, “My training as a sob sister helps.”
When Paxton returned to the United States in 1918, she married Edmund Keeley at the Little Church Around the Corner in New York City. The newlyweds then returned to Virginia where he was employed as the manager of Curles Neck Farm, one of the state’s oldest working plantations. Their only child, John Gallatin Paxton Keeley, was born in 1921.
Tragedy soon struck. Edmund Keeley’s health, which had never been robust, failed. He went to Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan for his health, but his absence left the family without any means of support. Mary Paxton Keeley was on the verge of taking a job with a railroad magazine when her youngest brother asked her to return to Missouri. She briefly found employment in Holt County, Missouri, before taking a job with the Atchison County Mail. While Paxton Keeley navigated the rough back roads of rural Missouri, her husband returned to Virginia. He died there in 1928. Mary Paxton Keeley never remarried.
The life of a country reporter took its toll on Paxton Keeley. After she contracted pneumonia, her father told her, “You cannot stand it physically anymore. The thing for you to do is to teach. Your hours will be the same as Pax’s, and you can look after him better.” Paxton Keeley soon found that she would need to obtain a master’s degree to teach so she enrolled at the University of Missouri and completed her degree in 1928. She published River Gold, a children’s book, the same year. In 1929 Paxton Keeley became the journalism instructor at Christian College, now Columbia College, and the founder of The Microphone, the student newspaper.
During her tenure she also taught creative writing and wrote and published several plays, many of which were performed locally. Throughout her life she kept up lively correspondence with fellow Missourians, including childhood friend Bess Truman, poet Orrick Johns, author Homer Croy, journalist Charles G. Ross, poet Tom McAfee, and writer Rose Wilder Lane. She became one of the most well-known figures in Columbia, riding through the streets on her bicycle with her short hair flying around her head. When she could no longer ride her bicycle, she relied upon a candy-striped cane topped with the head of Donald Duck. “I had several chances to go,” she said when asked about her time at Christian College, “but I enjoyed it, I’m so devoted to the people that I taught that I remember, and they had a good faculty too, so the time was not wasted.”
Although she retired from teaching in 1952, Paxton Keeley continued to write articles for the Kansas City Star and to edit the Missouri Alumnus. She helped co-found the Columbia Art League in 1959 and was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma, Theta Sigma Phi, and Kappa Tau Alpha. She was also a recipient of the Alumni Citation Award from the School of Journalism. Her portrait hangs in the Missouri School of Journalism’s Graduate Studies Center.
Old age did not dampen Paxton Keeley’s enthusiasm for life. Her colleague Sue Gerard recalled, “She never quit learning and sharing with others. As she aged, she lost her sight. Friends often read the news to her and discussed current events when she was in a care center. She wanted and needed to be informed.” “She was often morally outraged and loved to take on people with whom she disagreed,” her Christian College colleague Sid Larson observed, “She was not one to bite her lip when she saw injustice. She loved to tangle with people.” Mary Paxton Keeley died on December 6, 1986, at 100 years of age. In the fall of 2002, the Columbia Public Schools dedicated the Mary Paxton Keeley Elementary School on Park de Ville Drive.
Mary Paxton Keeley once observed, “The first part of my life, I had everything I thought I wanted. The next forty years I had to struggle. I am more of a person than if I had always had a sheltered, protected life, and have certainly reached more people.” She continues to be remembered for her contributions as a trailblazer in the field of journalism.
Mary Paxton Keeley Papers
The Mary Paxton Keeley Papers chronicle the career and struggles of a reporter, single mother, and journalism professor at Christian College. The majority of the collection is made up of correspondence, including letters from Bess Truman, J. C. Penney, Orrick Johns, and Rose Wilder Lane. Paxton Keeley’s diaries are often incomplete. Her diary from World War I provides a glimpse into her experiences as a YMCA canteen worker in France. Paxton Keeley’s 1937 diary is unique and of particular interest because it documents the meticulous planning and subsequent construction of her house at 1111 Porter Street, Columbia, Missouri.
She wrote throughout the course of her life. Publications, poetry, plays, fiction, nonfiction, and speeches are represented in the collection, as are articles, books, reprints, book reviews, manuscripts, newspaper clippings, certificates, publication reports, and illustrations. There are audio recordings and transcripts of interviews done by Paxton Keeley in 1967, 1974, and 1977. Paxton Keeley's World War I diary is available online as part of the State Historical Society of Missouri's World War I digital collection.
Text and research by Kimberly Harper.