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Mary Paxton Keeley (1886 - 1986)



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.


Early Years

Mary Gentry Paxton Mary Gentry Paxton Mary Gentry Paxton.

Mary Gentry Paxton as a young girl.

[Mary Paxton Keeley Papers, 1886-1986 (C0848), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

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.”

Young Mary Paxton Young Mary Paxton Young Mary Paxton.

Mary Paxton as a young woman.

[Mary Paxton Keeley Papers, 1886-1986 (C0848), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

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.”


Journalism School

Walter Williams Walter Williams Walter Williams.

A native of Boonville, Missouri, Walter Williams was a veteran newspaperman. He led the effort to establish the first school of journalism in the world at the University of Missouri.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (019141)]

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.

Missouri School of Journalism    Missouri School of Journalism Missouri School of Journalism.

When it first opened, the University of Missouri School of Journalism held classes in Switzler Hall. Today the school has eight buildings dedicated to the study of journalism.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (026159)]

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.



Kansas City Post Kansas City Post Kansas City Post.

The Kansas City Post was founded in 1906 by A. Fuller Brooker. The Post engaged in yellow journalism, which is the practice of running exaggerated, sensationalist news stories to boost sales.

[Kansas City Post, August 11, 1910, Page 1]

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
The Young Men's Christian Association was a global organization founded on June 6, 1844, with the purpose of instilling Christian values in young men. In the United States, the YMCA's greatest period of growth occurred between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. Although it is perhaps best known in America for its community sports and fitness programs, the YMCA has a number of other programs that provide resources for the poor, academic support, Christian counseling and leadership, child care, and employment training.
in France during World War I
Also known as the First World War, World War I was a global war that was centered in Europe. The conflict began on July 28, 1914, and lasted until November 11, 1918. It was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914. Alliances between countries were tested and war soon erupted. The two opposing alliances were the Allies and the Central Powers. The Allies consisted of the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire. The Central Powers were Germany and Austria-Hungary. Other countries were later drawn into the conflict, including the United States, which supported the Allies and entered the war on April 6, 1917. More than sixteen million died during the war and twenty million others were wounded. The National World War I Museum is located in Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
. 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.



With Former Students    With Former Students With Former Students.

Mary Paxton Keeley visiting with former Christian College students at a reunion.

[Mary Paxton Keeley Papers, 1886-1986 (C0848), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

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.

Enjoying Retirement Enjoying Retirement Enjoying Retirement.

Although she formally retired from teaching, Mary Paxton Keeley remained active. A journalist to the end of her life, when her eyesight began to fail, friends would read the newspaper to her so she could keep up on local and world news.

[Mary Paxton Keeley Papers, 1886-1986 (C0848), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

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:

Society 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. All links will open in a new tab.

  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “Greatly Admired Columbia Teachers Displayed Lifelong Love of Learning.” Columbia Daily Tribune. November 19, 2001. p. 8A.
    • “Mary Paxton Keeley.” Columbia Weekend Missourian. September 29, 2007. p. 19A.
    • “Newspaperwoman Still Writing at 82.” Kansas City Times. April 17, 1969. p. 4D.
    • “Pioneer Newswoman Honored.” Columbia Missourian. June 4, 1986. p. 9A.
    • “UMC Journalism’s First Woman Graduate Dies.” Columbia Daily Tribune. December 8, 1986. pp. 1-2.
    • “A Woman’s Place.” Columbia Daily Tribune. November 29, 1992. p. C1.
  • Books and Articles
    • 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]
  • Manuscript Collection
    • Keeley, Mary Paxton Keeley (1886-1986), Papers, 1830-1983 (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.

Outside Resources

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:

Historic Missourians: Mary Paxton Keeley
Mary Paxton Keeley Mary Paxton Keeley.

Mary Paxton Keeley was the first female graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (C165_1)]

Mary Paxton Keeley

Born: June 2, 1886
Died: December 6, 1986 (age 100)
Categories: Educators, Journalists, Women, Writers
Regions of Missouri: Northwest, Central
Missouri Hometowns: Columbia, Independence
Related Biographies: Walter Williams
Keeley's Signature