A Life: Kathleen Laura Campbell, 1923-2018; ‘I Have Never Met a Person in My Life for Whom Stories and Books Had Such a Deep, Deep Meaning’

  • Kay Campbell, who died in November at the age of 95, spoke at 2016 oral history event celebrating Strafford residents over the age of 90. Though she didn't like the spotlight, Campbell played many roles in town including serving as a founder of the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, town librarian, Selectboard member, justice of the peace and lister. (Kate Siepmann photograph) Kate Siepmann photograph

  • Kay Campbell stands in the Morrill Memorial and Harris Library where she served as librarian for 13 years. She later served on the library's board. (Family photograph)

  • Floyd and Kay Campbell stand with their fishing rods in an undated photograph. The couple married in 1946, after first meeting in a one-room schoolhouse in Strafford and later reconnecting at the University of Vermont. Together they raised six children and followed Floyd's job around the Northeast before retiring to Strafford in 1972. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2019 11:58:15 PM
Modified: 1/13/2019 11:58:15 PM

Strafford — Though Kay Campbell barred friends and family members from speaking spontaneously at her December memorial service because she didn’t care for sentimentality, there was at least one thing in her life that could bring her to tears — books.

Campbell, a Strafford resident and former librarian who died at 95 on Nov. 20, cried when a collection of books that had belonged to Justin Smith Morrill, a Strafford native and 19th-century statesman, had to be temporarily relocated to the Vermont Historical Society in Barre while a climate-controlled education center was constructed at the Morrill Homestead in Strafford, and again when those same books were returned following the construction.

“I have never met a person in my life for whom stories and books had such a deep, deep meaning,” Danette Harris, a former board member of Strafford’s Morrill Memorial and Harris Library, said of her friend.

Campbell shared her passion for books and stories with Strafford residents as the librarian at Morrill Memorial and Harris Library for 13 years from 1976 to 1989. She subsequently served on the library’s board for another 10 years. She also shared her passion through her work with the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award Committee, which gives Vermont students in grades four to eight the chance to select their favorite from a list of 30 nominees each year.

Campbell helped select the nominees by reading hundreds of children’s books each year and then shared descriptions of the books with students to inform their choices, introducing them to each book’s characters and offering plot synopses that would make them want to read more.

“Kids would run up afterward,” Harris, a former Newton School science teacher, said of Campbell’s book presentations. The students would say, “I want to be the first one to read that.”

While Campbell was most proud of this work of introducing people — especially children — to books, her influence on the community extended further. She helped to found the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, worked to restore Morrill’s apple orchard, and also served as a town justice of the peace, lister and Selectboard member. The hay she and her soil conservationist husband, Floyd, produced on his family farm on Pennock Road fed many animals over the years.

“I think she was really an advocate for rural communities,” Jennifer Campbell, the Campbells’ youngest child, said. She “wanted to pitch in and help preserve that culture.”

Despite her dislike of being in the spotlight, Campbell participated in a 2016 oral history project featuring Strafford residents in their 90s. The project, which included a booklet of stories and a public presentation, gave Campbell the chance to share her views of the town and how it’s changed.

“If it’s true that it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes our children and all of our welcomed newcomers to be sure that they are deeply involved in Strafford,” she said in her interview with her friend and neighbor Phyl Harmon, the oral historian who led the project. “That’s what makes it the vibrant community that it is today and will be through the years.”

A native Vermonter, Kathleen Laura Little was born on May 14, 1923 in Chelsea. Campbell’s mother, Emma Willard Hatch, a “rural intellectual” read the Bible in Greek, kept botany notebooks and divorced her husband in 1925.

“I think Mom’s mother was probably a little on the eccentric side,” Jennifer Campbell said.

Campbell was her parents’ “only but very special child,” Jennifer Campbell said. Though petite, standing just 4-feet 9-inches tall and weighing in at about 100 pounds, she was tough, roaming Chelsea’s hills with a BB gun as a child and, as a teenager, hiking the Long Trail with a friend.

After her mother’s death in 1939, Campbell lived with her Uncle Ned and Aunt Vera in Chelsea, while she earned her high school diploma at Chelsea High School. She subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Vermont in 1944.

Though a Chelsea native, Campbell first spent time in Strafford when she was 4 and she attended class in her mother’s one-room schoolhouse there. Floyd Campbell, then 7, helped young Kay put on her boots.

The two reconnected at UVM and were married in 1946, following Floyd’s return from World War II. Together, they raised six children — Gail, Steven, Judith, Colin, Robert and Jennifer — and spent Floyd’s working years following his jobs in soil conservation around the Northeast.

Though in some ways Campbell played a conventional role as a wife and mother, she was not purely defined by those roles. As Campbell’s oldest grandchild, Jennifer Higgins wrote in an email to her family following her death: Campbell “waited on Grandpa in a way that somehow was proper to her generation but never fooled anyone about who was in charge.”

Campbell’s role in the family was in some sense as a “traditional homemaker,” said Jennifer Campbell. But “she wasn’t traditional.”

She wasn’t interested in cooking or house cleaning, though she performed those functions and was particularly known for ironing everything. She baked cookies, but she would often read while they were baking.

“She famously burned every cookie she ever made,” Jennifer Campbell said.

In addition to reading, Campbell’s favorite activities also included bird watching, harvesting wild berries, fishing and road tripping.

When Jennifer was just 6 months old, her mother organized a family cross-country trip in 1964. All eight of them — with kids ranging in age from 6 months to 16 — traveled from Maine to California and back again that summer, camping all the way.

“My mother loved a road trip,” Jennifer Campbell said.

After Floyd was treated for colon cancer in 1972, the Campbells retired to his family’s farm in Strafford, where they both played numerous roles in the community.

One of their joint efforts was working to organize the Friends of the Morrill Homestead. As graduates of UVM, the Campbells felt indebted to Morrill, who served in the U.S. House and Senate for more than 43 years and authored the 1862 and 1890 Land-Grant College Acts, which allocated federal money for the creation of land-grant colleges such as UVM.

Floyd especially “wanted that legacy celebrated,” Jennifer Campbell said.

While the work of the Friends was gaining steam, in 1993, Anderson Thorpe, the Friends first president, said she approached the Strafford Historical Society, of which the Campbells were counted as members, with the idea of harvesting ice that coming winter and then hosting an ice cream social in the spring.

“They were very reliable people,” Thorpe said of the Campbells, whom she first came to know as an eighth-grade classmate of Jennifer Campbell. They were “always open to new ideas and creative thoughts.”

The ice harvest and ice cream social helped launch the Friends group, Thorpe said.

Later, their work to support the Morrill Homestead included raising funds to support a film about Justin Morrill that aired on Vermont PBS in 1998. The film, which was supported in part by funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, helped spread the word about Morrill’s work in expanding access to a college education. At the same time, a teacher’s guide of the film was distributed to teachers throughout the state.

“It’s much clearer what (Morrill’s) contribution was just because they brought some attention to it,” Strafford resident Steve Willbanks said.

More recently, the Campbells supported efforts to restore Morrill’s orchard, an effort which has included planting additional varieties of the original heirloom apples that had been grown on the site by Morrill and his family.

Though it was important to Campbell to participate in community activities, she disliked being the center of attention. But, after Floyd’s death in 2000, she ran for and was elected to the Selectboard.

Even though she was about 80 at that point, Campbell was “fully engaged” in the board’s work, Willbanks, who served on the board with her, said.

As the board’s clerk, Campbell kept “the most succinct minutes I’ve ever encountered,” Willbanks said. There was “never a wasted word.”

Similarly, Earl Silloway, who also served on the Selectboard with Campbell, remembered Campbell’s way with words.

“You didn’t have to worry about if you wrote something down if the spelling was correct or not because she was going to correct it anyways,” he said.

Campbell also had a forceful way of conveying her opinions, Silloway said.

For example, when the board took up the issue of whether or not to leave on a motion light at the town garage, Silloway thought they ought to and Campbell disagreed.

“She looked at me right square in the eyes and I knew I was licked,” he said.

In recent years, Campbell slowed down, she stopped driving and spent much of her time sitting and reading.

“Thank God she loved to read,” Harmon, her friend and neighbor, said. “That’s what she did.”

Valley News Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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