I recently had a chance to speak with Pomona College Board of Trustees member Mary Ellen Kilsby. A Pomona graduate of the Class of 1956, Kilsby has lived her life in a manner that defies the typical “road map to success.” Dancing through life, following her intuition, and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, Kilsby has become Senior Minister Emirita of the First Congregational Church in Long Beach and president of Pomona’s alumni association.
“It feels to me like I’ve never plotted my goals … I’ve slid down the banister running into whatever came my way,” she said. “It’s really been a gift.”
Kilsby grew up in Southern California in a liberal but very strongly Methodist family. Her religion, she said, was the “Southern California Methodism.”
“We were taught that it was important to love your neighbor … and not to be ashamed of sex,” Kilsby said. “We loved our bodies.”
Kilsby was very involved in the congregation during her youth and won a speech contest at her family’s church as a middle school student. The speech contest, she said, was a great experience, but when someone approached her after the event and told her that she was “going to be a missionary to the farthest corner of the earth,” Kilsby was uncertain that was her path. It seemed to her that there was plenty of work to be done in her own backyard.
During her time at Pomona, many students went to church on a regular basis. Undergraduates contributed to sermons on a regular basis, and Kilsby took advantage of the opportunity by involving herself in the on-campus ministry. She recalls that her lectures behind the pulpit at Pomona were important in her realizing the power of the spoken word and her own passion for religious education. One sermon, in particular, stood out to her as especially significant.
“I preached a sermon called ‘Sitting on Top of the World,’” Kilsby said. “Here, we were sitting on top of the world, we needed to give back.” That sense of responsibility has been the driving force in motivating Kilsby’s pursuits.
After Kilsby married her husband Bud Kilsby, the couple moved back to Claremont from Washington. Returning to the area, Kilsby was determined to go back to school.
“When Bud asked me to marry him, I told him I wanted to go to seminary, and then he told me, ‘Mary Ellen, I’m only going to ask you once, and you can go to seminary any time!’” she recalled.
Kilsby did return to campus and completed her master’s and doctorate degrees at the Claremont School of Theology. Her passion for education prompted her election to the Claremont Unified School Board. Her stint on the board was a lesson in standing up for herself.
“My generation of women was raised to please everybody—please your parents, please your teachers … but when I was elected to the school board, you can’t please anybody,” Kilsby said. “It gave me backbone and helped me run a man’s [Bob Stafford’s] campaign for Congress.”
Around the time she finished her doctorate, the women’s movement was beginning to take off.
“I was very stupid at first,” Kilsby said. “I was like, what’s the big deal all about? My husband lets me do whatever … I was like Lazarus: unwrapped, unwrapped, and then I finally came to the party.”
Success, for Kilsby, has manifested itself in different forms, but helping people has been the most fulfilling thing she’s done, she said.
“Just the other day… I was at a party and two different people came up to me and told me how a sermon meant so much to them that it brought them to tears,” Kilsby said. “They both quoted a sermon and said, ‘You have no idea what that meant to me.’ You go, ‘Holy shit, all of this was really meaningful and I didn’t have to go to Peru or do a water project.’”
For Kilsby, success is not measured in points checked off a to-do list. Although not keen on setting out guidelines for the future, Kilsby did have one bit of advice to share.
“The more you can laugh at yourself, the deeper the faith, the deeper the commitment,” Kilsby said.
Kilsby’s approach has always been to explore the options out there and to revel in the uncertainty that is most certainly ahead.
“You know, there’s that quote: life is a banquet and most of the bitches are starving to death,” Kilsby said. “Try stuff! If it doesn’t work, eh. If it’s fun and fulfilling, do it, you don’t always need a plan or a goal. Sometimes just follow your heart, wow, and the next door opens.”