Paul Philemon Kies, a popular professor of English, was one of the keenest collectors at Washington State College. When he wasn’t teaching, advising, or shooting photographs on campus, he was filling his office and home with rare books, autographs, letters, and photographs.
Robert B. O’Connor, a student, profiled Kies in 1970. It’s a portrait of “a unique personality” whose “office was so crowded with a lifetime of accumulation of everything imaginable that there was never any available chair space.”
As a young scholar from the rural Midwest, Kies learned his culture in Chicago from the Ringling family (as in the Ringling Brothers Circus) in the late 1920s. He was the personal music teacher of their son Robert. It was, in a way, a finishing school for the young man who was also studying for a doctorate in English at the University of Chicago. “I ate with the family and not the servants because his parents wanted him to respect me,” Kies once said. “That’s how I learned the proper utensils to use.”
In Pullman, Kies assumed the life of a bachelor scholar. He rented a room from chemistry professor Harry Cole. “He lived there for something like 35 years,” says Cole’s nephew Bob Smawley ‘52. So as not to inconvenience the family, he rarely ate or showered at the home, instead procuring his meals at the student commons. Sometimes, he was known to sleep in his office amidst his books. “It was filled with shelves built from boards from the lumberyard and books underneath,” says Smawley.
What Smawley remembers most about the professor is the sight of him with a camera around his neck, eagerly documenting the events of college life whether they were basketball games or concerts in Bryan Hall. Kies said he had three great passions: photography, music, and autographs. He jokingly called them his “diseases.”
He started his collecting habit with first edition books, which he bought to show students. That led him to rare book catalogues, which led him to the autographs. “He ‘bit’ on a Shaw item, and has been hooked ever since,” wrote O’Connor.
“They’re not the kind of autographs you’re thinking of,” Kies once told the Pullman Herald, prizing history over celebrity. “My autographs consist of the letters and documents written by famous people.”
One of his prize acquisitions was a lengthy handwritten letter in which Oscar Wilde summarizes a scenario for a comedy of manners. Further research revealed that Wilde sold the outline for 50 pounds and it was turned into a play by another writer. “If you like Wilde, this is so fun to see,” says archivist Cheryl Gunselman. “It’s probably one of the most important letters in the collection,”
Gunselman recently combed through Kies’s papers to pull together an exhibit. She mused over the list of items she would use: a note from Sarah Bernhardt, a letter from Pearl S. Buck, a government document signed by Adolph Hitler, a copy of a poem by Langston Hughes.
“Ah, here’s a prize,” she says, noting a Charles II manuscript from 1670. “It’s a pretty beautiful one.” The notes Kies left about acquiring the piece and documenting its authenticity make it even more interesting. “Part of the fun of the collection is that he’s all over it, too,” she says.
Kies, who had few other expenses, used his own money to build the collection. His efforts hit full speed in the 1950s, as evidenced by his letters and bills of sale.
“I’ve long had a fascination about this collection,” says Gunselman. “I want to explore the research value in a collection like this.“
Kies kept his collection around him until shortly after his 80th birthday party in 1971, when he died of a stroke. WSU bought the materials, which included more than 400 pieces of memorabilia, and moved them into the archives for safekeeping.
His friend and colleague Ruth Slonim, who had attended his birthday party, wrote about Kies in his memorial. “His suit pockets were files, his briefcases repositories of photographic flash bulbs, other paraphernalia, and manuscripts; his cranium, the locale for an infinite resource of eagerly gleaned knowledge, always readily at hand.”
View some of Kies’s notable autographs: Paul Philemon Kies Autograph Collection
On the web
Read the feature article “The Collectors”