Mary Paxton Keeley was the first woman graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. A female pioneer in the field of professional journalism, she served as a mentor, teacher, and friend to countless students.
Mary Gentry Paxton was born on June 2, 1886, in Independence, Missouri, to attorney John Gallatin Paxton and teacher Mary Neil Gentry Paxton. She was the oldest of five children. One of her childhood friends was Bess Wallace, the future wife of U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Due to the death of her mother, Mary did not attend college immediately after graduating from high school. She briefly attended Hollins College in Virginia but later observed, “I came back not much improved.”
After spending a semester at the University of Chicago, Paxton decided to study journalism, but the university did not have a journalism program. She discovered, however, that the University of Missouri was going to open a school of journalism. Paxton left the University of Chicago and traveled to Columbia, Missouri. She later recalled, “I was sitting on the doorstep waiting for [the journalism school] to open.”
Veteran newspaperman and University of Missouri curator Walter Williams, aware of the need for formal journalism instruction, had long advocated for the creation of a school of journalism. Williams envisioned the professionalization of journalism through a mix of classroom instruction and practical experience obtained by working on a student-produced community newspaper.
In 1906, Williams finally convinced his fellow university curators to establish a journalism school. When the Missouri School of Journalism opened its doors on September 14, 1908, it was the first journalism school in the world.
Mary Paxton was the first woman admitted to the new program. For one assignment, Professor Silas Bent sent Paxton to interview the mascot of a visiting team. The only problem was that the mascot was a bear cub. She laughingly recalled, “He sent me out to interview the bear! So I had to translate the bear’s conversation.”
As graduation approached in 1910, Walter Williams gave Paxton the honor of selecting the color of the journalism school’s graduation tassel because she would be the first female journalism graduate. When Williams asked her what color she would like, Paxton replied, “Any old color as long as it is red.” The journalism school’s tassel remains red to this day.
After graduation, Paxton joined the Kansas City Post. She remembered, “I graduated on Tuesday and went to work on Monday.” Paxton’s starting pay was $8 a week. Upon her arrival, Paxton discovered “a woman reporter was pretty rare west of the Mississippi. I became such a curiosity that people used to come into the office just to stare at me.” She covered a variety of stories and wrote investigative articles. One of her most interesting investigative stories was about alleged abuse at the State Training School for Girls in Chillicothe, Missouri.
After Paxton and her college sweetheart Charles Ross parted ways, she developed a severe case of appendicitis, and left the Post after working as a reporter for 15 months. She recovered, but left journalism and spent the next few years working various jobs. She taught at an orphanage and later worked with 4-H groups in Alabama and Virginia. It was in Virginia that Paxton met Edmund Burke Keeley. The couple decided to marry but postponed the date so that Paxton could work for the YMCA in France during World War I. They married upon her return. Their only child, John Gallatin Paxton Keeley, was born in 1921.
A Single Mother
Edmund Keeley’s health began to fail, so Mary Paxton Keeley became the family’s sole provider. She took a job with the Atchison County Mail in Holt County, Missouri. Edmund Keeley died in 1928, leaving Keeley a widowed mother. Determined to provide for her and her son, Keeley returned to the University of Missouri, obtained a master’s degree, and began teaching journalism and creative writing at Christian College (now Columbia College) in Columbia, Missouri. She became famous in town for riding through the streets on her bike at a time when few women rode bicycles.
Keeley retired from teaching in 1952 but remained active in the local community. She continued to write articles for various publications and co-founded the Columbia Art League in 1959. The University of Missouri School of Journalism honored her with an Alumni Citation Award. Her portrait still hangs in the School of Journalism’s Graduate Studies Center.
Mary Paxton Keeley died on December 6, 1986, at the age of 100. In the fall of 2002, Columbia Public Schools dedicated the Mary Paxton Keeley Elementary School on Park de Ville Drive.
Keeley once observed, “The first part of my life, I had everything I thought I wanted. The next forty years I had to struggle. I am more of a person than if I had always had a sheltered, protected life, and have certainly reached more people.” Through her trials and tribulations, Mary Paxton Keeley blazed a trail that thousands of female journalists have followed in the decades since she first arrived on the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s doorstep.
Text and research by Kimberly Harper
References and Resources
For more information about Mary Paxton Keeley’s life and career, see the following resources:
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Mary Paxton Keeley in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.
Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
- Taft, William H. “Establishing the School of Journalism.” v. 84, no. 1 (October 1989), pp. 63-83.
Articles from the Newspaper Collection
- “Greatly Admired Columbia Teachers Displayed Lifelong Love of Learning.” Columbia Daily Tribune. November 19, 2001. p. 8A. [Reel # 8696]
- “Mary Paxton Keeley.” Columbia Weekend Missourian. September 29, 2007. p. 19A. [Reel # 8093]
- “Newspaperwoman Still Writing at 82.” Kansas City Times. April 17, 1969. p. 4D. [Reel # 21620]
- “Pioneer Newswoman Honored.” Columbia Missourian. June 4, 1986. p. 9A. [Reel # 7868]
- “UMC Journalism’s First Woman Graduate Dies.” Columbia Daily Tribune. December 8, 1986. pp. 1-2. [Reel # 8517]
- “A Woman’s Place.” Columbia Daily Tribune. November 29, 1992. p. C1. [Reel # 8588]
- Dains, Mary, ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989. pp. 147. [REF F508 Sh82 v.1]
- Trout, Carlynn. Notable Women of Missouri. Columbia, MO: Columbia, Missouri Branch of the American Association of University Women, 2005. pp. 31-32. [REF F508 T758 2005]
- Farmer, Joe. “First Woman J. School Graduate Recalls Early News Classes Here.” Missouri Alumnus. v. 36, no. 9 (May 1948), p. 5-9. [REF UMC 378.778 T17]
- Mary Paxton Keeley Papers (C0848)
Papers of the first woman graduate of the University of Missouri, School of Journalism, in 1910. She was active as a journalist, teacher, playwright, poet, fiction writer, and photographer. Material includes correspondence; diaries; manuscripts for Keeley’s articles, fiction, and poetry; clippings; audio cassettes; and photographs.
These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society’s website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
- Harry S. Truman Library and Museum: Mary Paxton Keeley Oral History Interview
As a young girl, Mary Paxton Keeley was friends with future U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess Wallace Truman. In this oral history, Keeley vividly recounts her childhood in Independence, Missouri.