December 17, 1998
University Gazette


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A Fond, Bittersweet Farewell

Robert and Jana Kiely will step down after 26 years at Adams House

By Ken Gewertz
Gazette Staff

Robert and Jana Kiely, departing after 26 years as Co-masters of Adams House. Robert Kiely: "I'm ready for a little more privacy, but I will feel some twinges about leaving."

After 26 years as Co-masters of Adams House, Robert and Jana Kiely have announced that they are returning to private life.

"It's not because we're not still enjoying it," said Robert, the Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English. "But our youngest daughter Maria will be graduating from Harvard this year and that provides a nice closure to the experience. It's time for us to move on and let someone else have the fun."

"I've been very happy being here," said Jana. "It's been a wonderfully interesting life, surrounded by so much talent and by people with high ideals who want to do something for the community."

The Kielys have had a great deal to do with shaping that combination of artistic talent and political and social idealism that has characterized Adams House. The arts had flourished there under the House's previous Master, Reuben Brower, who had been Robert's English professor at Amherst College, but by the time the Kielys came in 1972, just three years after the student takeover of Mass Hall, the arts had been eclipsed by political activity.

The Kielys wanted to rebuild Adams House as a haven for musicians, dancers, actors, artists, and writers, but without necessarily blunting the sharp edge of activism that distinguished the community.

Toward that end, they began looking for tutors who would help to teach, guide, and inspire students interested in the arts.

"It's fairly easy to get tutors in the standard academic fields," Robert said. "But we felt it was important to find real musicians, writers, artists, and actors. It was hard at first, but then people started recommending other people and a network developed."

Eventually the Kielys grew accustomed to talented candidates showing up virtually on their doorstep. Victoria and Robert Sirota, for example, knocked on the door of the Master's residence, Apthorpe House, in 1974 in search of positions as music tutors.

"They appeared, and I loved them both. Music was a crusade for them. Adams House really resounded when they were here," Robert said.

Victoria and Robert Sirota now teach music at Yale and Boston University, respectively. Many other Adams House tutors have gone on to distinguished careers in the arts, including sculptor Romolo del Deo, designer and architect Renée Chang, and pianist Hugh Hinton.

Having young practicing artists as tutors provided a beacon of light to undergraduates who felt drawn to artistic careers but were struggling against the pressure to make more pragmatic choices.

"Students who wanted to pursue the arts as their life work and who felt that they were in a minority at Harvard - this was a place where people didn't laugh at that. Lots of people have told me that if it were not for Adams House, they wouldn't have stayed at Harvard," Robert said.

The Kielys have helped Adams House maintain a position not only on the artistic frontier, but on the social and political one as well. It was the first house to become completely co-ed, having equal proportions of men and women by the early '70s, a time when men greatly outnumbered women in the general undergraduate population.

By the late '70s and early '80s another revolution was taking place, and Adams House again was on the forefront. It was the first House that openly welcomed gay and lesbian students as well as being the House where BGLTSA (the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliances) got its start.

"It took a lot of courage for those students to stand up and ask for recognition, but once they did, word got around," Robert said.

Added Jana: "That was really how the community began, by welcoming everyone."

As leaders of this diverse and highly individualistic community, the Kielys are not fans of randomization, the policy of assigning undergraduates to Houses without taking personal preference into account.

"I've always been opposed to it," Robert said. "Adams House is already racially and socially integrated with plenty of diverse interests. I think many students are less well served by randomization, which for one thing makes them less attached to their Houses."

Jana agreed: "When the students had a community that they could make the way they wanted, it was very exciting, it became something special."

A biologist by training who taught at Newton College of the Sacred Heart (now part of Boston College), Jana has valued her time as Co-master for the opportunity it has given her to share with female students her interest in integrating career and family. The Kielys have four children.

"There was a time when women just wanted careers and were willing to forget about everything else, but I've seen them slowly develop an interest in doing both, and I've enjoyed helping them struggle with the problem of how to do that."

During her tenure as Co-master, Jana has undergone a radical career change, leaving biology to take a degree at Harvard Divinity School. She now serves as coordinator of religious education at neighboring St. Paul's Parish and has become involved in community activism. She looks forward to increasing that involvement after she and Robert leave Adams House in June 1999.

The Kielys admit that they will miss being House Masters, in part because of the unique residence they will leave behind. Apthorpe House, built in 1760, is one of the oldest and most architecturally distinguished houses in Cambridge. It was once the rectory of Christ Church, and, during the Revolutionary War, General Burgoyne was held prisoner there.

Their new house in North Cambridge may not have as much history attached to it, but the Kielys are looking forward to the move.

"It will be interesting living in a real Cambridge neighborhood after all these years," Jana said.

Robert faces the transition enthusiastically, but with some mixed feelings.

"For me, it's been the best job I could have imagined. I can't think of anything that would have suited my interests and ambitions better. Now I'm ready for a little more privacy, but I will feel some twinges about leaving."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College