Remembering William Watkins Kelly

Posted by Leighton Carruth | April 24, 2018

William Watkins Kelly, Mary Baldwin’s sixth president, 1969–76, who led the college through the turbulence and rapid change of the 1970s, died on April 17 in Atlanta. He was 89.

A presidential selection committee at Mary Baldwin chose Kelly from more than 100 nominations to succeed President Samuel Spencer, and the college celebrated his inauguration on Founders Day, October 4, 1969. A Virginia native, he came to Staunton from Michigan State University at the age of 40, with his first wife, Jane, and their four sons.

One of his first initiatives was to form the President’s Committee on the Challenges of the ’70s, producing a report that confirmed Mary Baldwin’s core values of openness, service, trust, and a search for truth.

During Kelly’s tenure, higher education — and the nation as a whole — grappled with the Vietnam War, oil shortages, and unprecedented social change. Many formerly single-sex institutions, such as the University of Virginia, welcomed women for the first time.

At Mary Baldwin, the challenges that arose during those years included administrative turnover, budget deficits, and declining enrollment. There were also many changes to student life on campus — regarding the role of religion, regulation of behavior, a new curriculum focused more on choice, and the beginnings of the computer age.

This was a pioneering generation of college students, and they were experimenting and pushing boundaries across society. Kelly and his colleagues upheld Mary Baldwin’s academic excellence and social relevance with dedication and diplomacy.

Kelly notably oversaw the completion and opening of Pearce Science Center in 1970, and the expansion of Wenger Hall. Mary Baldwin was awarded a chapter of prestigious national honor society Phi Beta Kappa in 1971, after a three-year application process, and a chapter of college leadership honor society Omicron Delta Kappa was installed in 1976, the first one at a women’s college.

During the New Dimensions campaign, in early 1975, Mary Baldwin garnered the largest gift to date of $1 million. Kelly helped develop a carefully thought-out master plan for improving the college’s finances, which provided a blueprint for many decisions in the coming years. He also championed the creation of the Advisory Board of Visitors in 1973, with a special focus on helping Mary Baldwin students with career planning, and he approved new admissions practices that recruited in different areas and focused on more diversity.

When Kelly announced in 1975 that he planned to resign, an editorial by Campus Comments, Mary Baldwin’s student newspaper, praised his term of service, noting “great accomplishments, unprecedented difficulties … our appreciation, profound admiration, and personal affection … are extended to both president and Mrs. Kelly for their service to the college.” Students also created a scholarship in his honor.

Kelly was originally from Big Stone Gap, where his father was superintendent of Wise County Schools for more than 50 years. A graduate of Virginia Military Institute and Duke University, he also served as a lieutenant in the Air Force, teaching English at the newly opened Air Force Academy in Colorado. After his time as president of Mary Baldwin, he served in that role at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and he later led the Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Birmingham, and the Georgia Foundation of Independent Colleges in Atlanta.

Kelly is survived by his four sons with his first wife, Jane, and nine grandchildren. His second wife, Catherine Messer, preceded him in death in 2016. Kelly’s obituary notes that, at the end of his life, he enjoyed reading, watching military history, drinking sweet tea, and watching football with his sons.