Mary Paxton Keeley (1886 – 1986)
Mary Paxton Keeley was the first woman to graduate from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Missouri. She became the first female news reporter for the Kansas City Post and later taught journalism at Columbia College. She had many artistic hobbies and was a lifelong friend to Bess Wallace Truman, the wife of President Harry S. Truman.
Mary Gentry Paxton was born on June 2, 1886, in Independence, Missouri. Her parents were John Gallatin Paxton, a lawyer, and Mary Neil Gentry, a teacher and granddaughter of Missouri pioneer postmistress Ann Hawkins Gentry. Mary was the oldest of five children. Her siblings were Frank, Elizabeth, Matthew, and Edward. Mary grew up next door to Bess Wallace, first lady from 1945 to 1953.
Mary’s parents believed in education. She attended the Ott School in Independence for her elementary education, had tutors in Latin and German, and then went to Manual Training High School in Kansas City. After her mother died in 1903 of tuberculosis, Mary went to Hollins College in Virginia for a year. She spent a summer at the University of Chicago and decided that she wanted to study journalism. The University of Missouri opened a School of Journalism in 1908 and Mary entered as the first female of the first class. She graduated in 1910.
Becoming a Journalist
A week after graduation, the Kansas City Post hired Mary as a news reporter for eight dollars a week. From 1910 to 1911, Mary reported on society news and did investigative reporting on a girls’ reform school in Chillecothe, Missouri. That year she also took an unusual ride in an experimental army kite. Her story appeared on the front page of the Post. “In those days, a woman reporter was pretty rare west of the Mississippi,” Mary once told reporters. “I became such a curiosity that people used to come into the office just to stare at me.”
During World War I, Mary became active in the YMCA in France. Her 1918–1919 diary reflects her war experiences in stories and poetry. After the war, she married Edmund Burke Keeley of Virginia. Their only child, John Gallatin Paxton Keeley, was born in 1921 in Richmond, Virginia. Soon afterwards, her husband became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1926, leaving Mary a widow.
Mary and her son, nicknamed Pax, left Virginia and returned to Columbia. She completed a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Missouri in 1928. That same year she published River Gold, a suspenseful story of boys’ adventures in and around the Missouri River near Independence. In 1928, Mary was hired by Columbia College, formerly Christian College, to teach journalism. For the next twenty-four years, Mary taught students journalism as if they were in a real newsroom. She became known as “Mary Pax” and was famous around town for riding a bicycle when most adults did not. She founded The Microphone, the student newspaper, taught creative writing, and wrote several plays that were performed locally including The River Rat, Wind in the Stars, Vinnie Ream, and the Kettle Singing.
Special Interests and Hobbies
Mary loved Missouri history. In the mid-1930s, she created twenty historically accurate dolls depicting notable women of Missouri, including her great grandmother Ann Hawkins Gentry. The dolls were exhibited in the Missouri buildings at the Golden Gate International Exposition held in San Francisco and the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40. Eighteen of them are now at the Boone Country Historical Society in Columbia.
In June 1952, Mary retired from Columbia College but did not stop working. She edited the Missouri Alumnus at the University of Missouri and wrote articles for the Kansas City Star. She took up painting and photography and helped found the Columbia Art League. She continued to mentor young women studying journalism and to write articles for magazines such as Woman’s Day, The Ladies’ Home Journal, and Writer’s Monthly.
Mary Gentry Paxton Keeley lived a rich and remarkable life. She paved the way for many female journalists in a profession dominated by men. She was a working mother who raised a son on her own at a time when professional jobs and opportunities for women were scarce. She contributed in meaningful ways to her community and to the culture of Missouri. In 1977, she moved from her home to the Lenoir Convalescent Center. She published poetry in the center’s anthology and became one of the nursing home’s most interesting residents. She died on December 6, 1986, at the age of 100 and is buried in the Columbia Cemetery.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. 2 vols. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989, 1993. Vol. 1: 147.
Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, MO
Columbia Daily Tribune. December 8, 1986. pp. 1–2.