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Sliding Down Banisters

$150,000 to endow fund for Museum of Art student interns

The words of the Reverend Doctor Mary Ellen Kilsby ’56 are as eloquent and evocative as one might expect from a seasoned preacher. She speaks in vivid similes, as if simple narration wasn’t enough to fully encapsulate her thoughts. Her Methodist upbringing was “like being a chocolate chip in a warm cookie”; her delayed introduction to feminism was “like those Magic Eye books where you have to look at the picture twice, and sometimes still don’t get it.”

Most frequently, she describes her past experience as “a life of sliding down banisters.” From winning a speech contest at the age of 10 to becoming one of the United Church of Christ’s first-ever female senior ministers, she views much of her career as one big, fun, spontaneous joyride.

Growing up in Los Angeles, church was a regular part of Kilsby’s childhood. After graduating from Pomona with a degree in sociology and religion, she married her Pomona boyfriend Bud. He soon got involved in his family’s steel business, allowing time for Kilsby to take courses at the Claremont School of Theology. Her professional involvement began in 1975, when she found her calling as an associate minister at the Claremont United Church of Christ. “It was a cosmic click,” she says of her first position. “I quickly realized it was something that I was born to do.”

Serving as pastor of a UCC church in Altadena, Calif., from 1983 to 1987, Kilsby then made history when she was named a senior minister at the First Congregational Church of Long Beach. Her appointment struck a nerve with some members of the 1,000-person church that, while progressive, had never given a woman a position of such stature. One Baptist choir refused to perform at an Easter service if she was to be the preacher; a persistent picketer stood outside the church every Sunday for several years. The ever-optimistic Kilsby took it all in stride. “Sure, it was controversial,” she says with a smile. “But it was all good publicity for us!”

Retired since 1999, Kilsby still preaches occasionally at Long Beach, but has also discovered a second passion for philanthropy through her support of Pomona and organizations like the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Claremont School of Theology. Last year, she donated $150,000 to Pomona to create the Graham “Bud” ’55 and Mary Ellen ’56 Kilsby Endowment Fund for Student Interns at the Pomona College Museum of Art.

This past fall, first internship recipient Carrie Dedon ’10 curated the exhibit “Famous for 15,” which featured Andy Warhol Polaroids and prints as well as a projection of more than 100 camera phone photos submitted by the wider Pomona community. The exhibit explored the parallels between modern photo technology and the Warholian notion of glamorizing the banal. “With camera phones, you can take photos of anyone and publish them instantly on Facebook or Flickr,” Dedon says. “Those ‘15 minutes of fame’ are getting easier to obtain, which in some ways devalues the whole concept of celebrity.”

"Famous for 15” found its own measure of fame with coverage on Southern California Public Radio 89.3 KPCC. Most importantly, the project fulfilled Kilsby’s original vision of the internship as an entrepreneurial extension of Pomona's art program. “It’s not often that an undergrad is granted the responsibility of overseeing an exhibit from start to finish,” says Dedon. “I’m very grateful to [Kilsby] because this internship really helped me discover my passion for curating.”

Kilsby’s interest in philanthropy, like Dedon’s in curating, was informed by her time at Pomona. One of the first sermons she ever delivered, in fact, was at the College chapel and dealt with the very topic of giving back. “I slid down the banister into that community of scholarship, and it stretched my mind,” says Kilsby, who was recently elected president of the Alumni Association. “Pomona enriched even that sense of generosity—not just of money, but of spirit.”