America’s Independence Day reminds me of my late father-in-law, Robert L. Kelley, a history professor. A warm, wonderful man, he made an indelible first impression on me. As Sandra, then my fiancé, ushered me into her family’s home in Santa Barbara, California, for the first time shortly before Thanksgiving 1986, Bob Kelley spread his arms wide and boomed out, “Welcome to our house.” There was no mistaking the warmth in his voice and body language at this first encounter with his future son-in-law.
The advance reports he’d received about me from Sandra must have been as favorable as those she’d given me about him. I’d heard he was a modest, hard-working, unassuming man. A “salt of the earth” guy who enjoyed working on improvements to his home and garden, watching baseball, hiking in the hills with his boxers, doing woodcarving projects, playing classical guitar … and teaching and writing about history at the University of California, Santa Barbara – Sandra’s alma mater. And the two of us would later sometimes talk history and current events when Sandra and I visited Santa Barbara.
It was on one of those visits that I discovered, on one of the many groaning bookshelves in his home, a small volume that made a big impression – and that reminds me of him on July Fourth. Entitled The American Experience, it was the June 1977 issue of The American Historical Review, the journal of the American Historical Association. Its first 99 pages comprised three “Bicentennial Essays,” published a year after the 200th anniversary of our nation’s independence. The authors of those essays, I guessed as I pulled it off the shelf, would be scholars at the pinnacle of the study of American history. I wasn’t disappointed. One was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a renowned former professor at Harvard and confidant of President John F. Kennedy. Another was C. Vann Woodward, the distinguished Yale historian. And right up there on the cover of the book with them was … my father-in-law, a professor of American intellectual and political history at a university too often unfairly characterized as a place where students “major in surfing.”
For me, Bob Kelley will always be not simply “my father-in-law the history prof” but an “apex scholar.” I am one of the many who miss him.