Reverend Doctor MaryEllen Kilsby
“Her cup overflowed”
When MaryEllen Kilsby was given the opportunity to accept her first job as a senior minister, longtime Claremont family friend Kay Held encouraged her, “Do what you do best, MaryEllen: Love them.”
“I do think I’ve operated, lived my life and made choices with my heart,” Rev. Kilsby said.
She did just that, with a contagious warmth and compassion that seemed to have no limit, according to friends and family.
“She lit a campfire in your heart,” friend and former youth group member George Waters shared. “Somewhere now, she is making God laugh and pointing down at certain parts of the world, saying, ‘How about there? They could use some help.’”
Rev. Kilsby died at the age of 78 on January 4, 2013 at the Pilgrim Place Health Center in Claremont, surrounded by her family.
Rev. Kilsby was born in 1934 to Lester and Mary Green and grew up in Los Angeles. She came to Claremont to study at Pomona College, where she earned Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and religion, attaining membership in Phi Beta Kappa and graduating cum laude.
Unlike many of her classmates, “biblical scholarship became exciting to me,” she said. Church had been a regular part of the childhood of Rev. Kilsby, who grew up attending Hollywood’s First Methodist Church with her parents. Rev. Kilsby’s mother had led church and camp groups, using her education and talents to encourage other young women. Her mentorship made an impression on Rev. Kilsby, setting an important example and fostering her own religious inclinations.
“It was the church that gave my mother the chance to use her mind,” she said.
While she was a student at Pomona College, the faculty selected her for the unique honor of preaching to fellow students in a College Tuesday Chapel Service, recognizing her emerging talents as a speaker. She titled her first sermon “Sitting on Top of the World,” urging her classmates “to care about the rest of humanity.”
In Claremont, her relationship with a fellow Pomona student, Graham Perry “Bud” Kilsby, blossomed. Since they grew up in the same Los Angeles neighborhood, she often caught weekend rides home with him. She was intrigued and fascinated by him, but thought Mr. Kilsby was “far too racy.” They quickly became sweethearts as Bud’s softer side was discovered.
They wed in February of 1956, and their daughter Kathy was born a year later. Three more children, Richard, Christi and Robin, followed in the next 5-and-a-half years. When a Claremont friend suggested the couple join the brand-new Methodist Church meeting at Sycamore Elementary School, the Kilsbys began leading Claremont Methodist Church youth groups together.
“Bud and I jumped in with both feet,” Rev. Kilsby recalled. “He did the sports and games. I did the curriculum.”
They made an outstanding team and were struck by the lesson they learned from the experience: “We are not the center of the universe.” This message would become a strong theme in Rev. Kilsby’s evolving theology.
“They always seemed to me to represent the ideal couple. In some ways, they were very different from each other, and yet totally one,” said longtime friend Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr., a professor emeritus at Claremont School of Theology. “It’s an inspiration to see people who, year after year, grow together, work together and support each other. The way he supported her as a minister was a marvel.”
After graduation, Mr. Kilsby became involved in his family’s steel business. He encouraged his wife to pursue a direction that was becoming increasingly important to her—attending the seminary.
Rev. Kilsby received her master’s degree and a Doctorate of Ministry, with honors, from the Claremont School of Theology. She was the first woman to receive the Wilshire Preaching Award, given each year to a graduating senior.
Rev. Kilsby was also involved in the broader Claremont community. In 1970, she was elected to the Claremont Unified School Board and served for 8 years, 2 of them as president.
“It was a very interesting time. I was raised in an era to please,” Rev. Kilsby related. “You can’t please everyone when you are on the school board.”
Despite such challenges, Rev. Kilsby felt the experience made her a stronger person and a better preacher. She became known for her excellent sermons, which frequently tackled difficult subjects and were often considered controversial.
In 1975, Rev. Kilsby was ordained by the United Methodist Church, and began working in Christian education, but she changed course at the urging of a dear friend, Joe Hough, an associate minister, who entreated her, “I know what a good Methodist you are, but we really need you!”
Unable to say no, she became the Christian Educator at the Claremont United Church of Christ, UCC, leaving the Methodist Church. This decision allowed her to remain a resident of Claremont, raising her children in a city she had come to love.
A few years later, in 1978, Senior Minister David Held offered Rev. Kilsby a UCC ordination. One of her first sermons was titled, “Ripe Fruit/Sour Grapes,” speaking out against the anti-gay views espoused by the singer Anita Bryant. Although a number of people walked out, this remained one of her passionate callings throughout her ministry.
In 1983, Altadena UCC called Rev. Kilsby to lead them for the next 5 years as their minister, a post in which she became a pioneer. She rallied the congregation to become Open and Affirming to the gay and lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender community (LGBT). With Rev. Kilsby’s leadership, this small neighborhood congregation would become the fourth church in the nation to open its arms to the LGBT community.
After a long love affair with Claremont, the Kilsbys were given the opportunity to support yet another congregation who needed them. In 1987, Long Beach had the courage to call Rev. Kilsby to be the first woman senior minister of a multi-staff, 1,000-person church in the National UCC. Rev. Kilsby would serve there for the next 12 years, leading the church to become Open and Affirming LGBT friendly. When she retired in 1999, she became the minister emerita.
In her retirement, Rev. Kilsby enjoyed traveling the world with her husband and became more involved in the greater Long Beach community. Mr. Kilsby died from lung cancer on February 1, 2009 at Long Beach Memorial Hospital at age 75.
Always an active community leader, Rev. Kilsby served in various capacities with the Girl Scouts, Soroptimists, League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, AIDS Walk Long Beach, the Public Corporation for the Arts and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Rev. Kilsby discovered a second passion for philanthropy through her support of Pomona College and organizations like the Long Beach Museum of Art and the Claremont School of Theology. She served on the board of directors for the Long Beach Opera and the Arts Council of Long Beach. She was on the Sage Council of the South Coast Interfaith Council and the advisory board for the Carpenter Center and was active in various other support groups for the arts. She also helped endow the Kilsby Family/John B. Cobb Jr. Chair in Process Studies.
In her life, Rev. Kilsby was grateful to her husband, for being the “wind beneath my wings.” She was grateful to her children, “who all are people of conscience and spread this to the families of their own.” She was also appreciative of all her friends, whom she said supported her every day of her life.
“MaryEllen loved with a passion—she loved with her whole heart,” family shared. “She truly lived life to the fullest and will be missed by many.”
Rev. Kilsby is survived by her children, Kathy Kilsby of Claremont, Richard Kilsby of Lake Oswego, Oregon, Christi Kilsby Norton of Lafayette and Robin Kilsby Fitchett of Encinitas. She also leaves 11 grandchildren, her extended family and many friends.
Two memorial services will be held for Rev. Kilsby. The first will be at the First Congregational Church of Long Beach at 2 p.m. on Saturday, January 19. The second will be held at the Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 W. Harrison Ave. in Claremont, on Sunday, January 20 at 4 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Rev. MaryEllen Kilsby’s name to the Girl Scouts of America or the America Lung Association.