The Family Letter Blog

Connecting Generations


June 25, 2015 – Happy 125th Birthday Joseph Bush Kingsbury

Today is the quasquicentennial of my paternal grandfather Joseph Bush Kingsbury’s birth. Until I just checked the correct word for the 125th anniversary, I hadn’t made the connection that JBK was born 25 years after the end of the American Civil War.

His contributions to the family letters leave no doubt that he valued family above all other aspects of his life. They offer well written glimpses into his life – his work, his travel and how he spent his leisure time, especially after his formal retirement from Indiana University in 1960.

Despite growing up in Richmond, Virginia while he was in Bloomington, Indiana, I had a close relationship with my grandfather. From his letters I am reminded that he usually visited twice a year, often for two to three weeks at a time. I have strong memories of our walks in the park, trips to the library, camping trips and of course, my favorite memory of all – playing Russian Bank with him at our big dining room table. Very few people I know have heard of Russian Bank. It is a version of double solitaire using two decks of cards. Like most versions of solitaire, it is a simple game, but it contains elements of strategy and memory that make it more challenging than a typical game of solitaire. It also sounds exotic and worldly – Russian Bank. I wonder when and where he learned that game. JBK never seemed to tire of it and would play it with me for hours.

So on his birthday, I want to share what I remember about my Granddaddy Kingsbury – abounding love, pride and encouragement. I naturally attribute my academic success to him – he was a college professor after all – and he certainly provided emotional and financial support to me in college and law school. But the more I read about him, the more I think we were close because we have similar personalities and interests. He loved spending time in nature (so do I) and he liked to write.

Here’s his account of a Thanksgiving morning hike in 1962 when I was seven years old. My mother’s name is Cecil, but he always called her Ceil.

“I was telling Ceil about when we lived in Richmond in 1936; our well went dry, and we had to go every evening to a big spring in one of the city parks and fill our bottles and jugs. Ceil said that must be the park near their house, so she drove Kathy and me over there and left us. I recognized the spring, and Kathy knew the park and the way home. We hiked for two hours. I stuck to the paths, but Kathy roamed the hill sides and brought me colored leaves, ferns, stones and other treasures. By the time we started home I was carrying her coat, umbrella, galoshes, a handful of leaves, and two 3-pound stones, and we were ready for a big dinner.”

Fifty years later and I still roam the hill sides and collect rocks – every chance I get!

It’s a puzzle to figure out which traits one inherits from which parent or grandparent, but when I read JBK’s contributions to the family letter and see his take on world events, I feel an immediate connection. I am so thankful to have his letters. I wonder if  he ever thought his contributions to the family letter would provide the bridge for his granddaughters and yet unborn descendants to learn about his life. I know he was too humble and modest to think anyone would ever want to know all that much about him but he was wrong on that count.

The morning after our Thanksgiving Day hike in 1962, JBK rode to Washington DC with my mother and her friends (my mother had a tradition of driving from Richmond to DC to begin Christmas shopping on the Friday after Thanksgiving.) JBK had been a professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis Maryland in the 1930s. In 1962 he visited several friends who were still associated with the college and writes:

“The Annapolis visit was a return to the past, with memories both pleasant and unpleasant, but I am glad I am not yet dependent on the past for my happiness. The world is a messy place at present, and the future looks even worse, but when I find myself thinking too much about the good old days, I will know that I am through.”

The next year – 1963 – JBK writes

“I have been carrying around in my trunk some of the pocket diaries that I was in a habit of keeping; started looking through them to see if I could find anything about our visit to Vermont in 1912. There are no entries for December of that year except a list of Christmas presents, one of which was for Charlotte, whom Dean and I visited, and who remembered our visits, but I had almost forgotten. I spent a whole day reading old diaries, and it was a strange experience – almost like reading about a strange person in a different world. I decided that I am not yet willing to live in the past. The world today is a baffling place, and I have no ambition or wish to try to understand all of the new ideas and inventions, especially in science; but it is an interesting time to be living and I don’t feel like saying “stop the world I want to get off!”

So I guess there is one obvious difference between us. I adore living in the past – in fact I spend a good part of every day there. But can you blame me when I have such a perfect blueprint to explore?


A 1962 Letter from JBK

My grandfather Kingsbury left almost a half-century of letters that are a source of endless delight and information for me. They are also proof that you should not assume everything you read is the complete story. Probably more than most people, my grandfather, JBK, was a keen observer of life offering quite detailed accounts and recollections.

Born in Osage Iowa in 1890, JBK went to Washington DC for college at George Washington University and earned an AB in 1915. He served in the Army from May 30, 1917 to July 9, 1919 and was with the Army of Occupation in Coblentz, Germany from February 11, 1919 to March 3, 1919. Here are the remarks from his commanding officer on his Certificate of Honorable Discharge from the United States Army dated July 19, 1919.

Services honest and faithful. No absence under WD G.O. 45/14. No a.w.o.l. of record. Entitled to two foreign service chevrons. Entitled to travel pay to Chicago, Ill. Entitled to sixty ($60) dollars in addition to all amounts due him as provided in Sec. 1406 Rev Act 1918. Approved February 24, 1919.

JBK earned his PhD in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 1923. His PhD thesis was on The Merit System in Chicago, 1895-1915. His first teaching assignment was as an Assistant Professor at Washington University in St. Louis from 1921-1925. He moved to Washington, DC to join the staff of the Bureau of Public Personnel Administration and served as the Washington Representative to the National Civil Service Reform League from 1926-1927. This is when he met his wife, Kitty Bryant.

After teaching at St. Johns College in Annapolis Maryland from 1928-1936, he held a number of positions in the federal government in Washington DC until 1946, when he joined the faculty of Indiana University as a Professor of Government. His specialty was public administration and he spent several years in the 1950s and 1960s in Thailand, helping the country establish its public administration functions.

JBK kept a small pocket diary and each day he would jot down significant events. When time came to make his contribution to the family letter, he would review his notes and recount what had occurred since his last entry. JBK had four brothers and the extended Kingsbury family circulated a family letter for most of the 20th century.  The letter made its rounds to all participants who lived throughout the US and each person would remove the letter they had inserted a few months before, insert their new contribution and send the letter on its way.  JBK loved the family letter.

For me, his letters are a fantastic source of historical information because they were written at the time the events occurred.  In that sense, they are untainted by failing memory and inaccuracies that inevitably creep in when someone recalls an event from fifty years ago. Of course they have the writer’s own bias and probably don’t tell the whole story. JBK usually contributed 2-3 typed pages each time the letter made it back to him and that was every 2- 3 months when the letter was circulating regularly. I’ve got a treasure trove that I’m still making my way through.

Here’s a sample from his letter in April 1962 when he had just returned from an extended assignment to Thailand and Indonesia. (I’ll use . . . when I’m skipping a few word and >>> when I’m skipping larger parts of the letter.)Also, it is helpful to know that Dean  without an “e” on the end refers to JBK’s younger brother Orrin Dean Kingsbury. Deane, with an “e” on the end, refers to JBK’s youngest son, Preston Deane Kingsbury. The name Dean was a name often used in both the Kingsbury and Bryant families and if I’m not mistaken, my cousin Stacy (without an “e”) used it for her daughter Kyra’s middle name.

1818 Hastings Avenue

Cleveland 12, OH

April 11, 1962

Dear family:

As you see from the address, I am with Bryant. We have just finished a wonderful breakfast and Bry has gone to the laboratory to set up the day’s work, and I will write my part of the family letter which I read in Sturbridge day before yesterday. I mailed a letter from Bangkok a month ago but Dean says they never received it, although my Deane got a copy of the same letter mailed the same day.

I landed in New York from London a week ago and went up to Sturbridge for four days, then back to NY to use my PAA (Pan Am Airlines – anyone remember them?) ticket to Bloomington, via Cleveland and Chicago. To give you the bare outlines of the last month – I left Jogjakarta March 5, had one day in Djakarta, flew to Bangkok where I stayed until March 10, flew from B’kok to Ankara the night of the 10th, right over India, Afghanistan and Iran without waking up except for an hour’s wait in the Teheran airport. I stayed 6 days in Ankara (he’d been on assignment there in the early 1950s), 4 days each in Athens and Rome, 5 days in Paris and 6 days in London. . . . I went from NY to Sturbridge by bus, via Hartford and Springfield, and the bus dropped me in front of Dean and Helen’s doorstep on the first warm day of spring. We had a fine time together, drove to Somerset one day and had dinner with Doris, Paul, Carol, Bruce and Lisa; spent Sunday in Needham with Peg and George and their three: Marc, Dean and baby Anne. Monday morning Dean drove me to Worcester and I caught a Greyhound bus non-stop to New York. Yesterday I took a United Airlines jet at Newark and landed in Cleveland 1¾ hours later. Bry was at the airport looking fine, and we are busy talking over the last 2 years. We may drive to Kokomo the end of the week.


Dean and Helen look fine. D. is busy supervising the assembling of their new pottery – a 150 year old building they found in Connecticut, and Helen tries her best to keep up with orders for her colonial dolls, made of clay, and dressed in authentic colonial costumes. But they were taking a few days off and we had time for a leisurely visit. The first warm spring day came while I was there, and although things hadn’t started to turn green, the smell of spring was there, and that is what I had been anticipating.

The girls (Doris and Peg) looked well and happy.  Both have remarkably fine husbands and families. Paul Gayzagian is a handsome fellow, and as good as he looks. George Pahud grows in my estimation every time I see him. He is a musician (bassoon) who is making himself into an electronics engineer, and still has time to take his boys canoeing, fishing and camping. I haven’t space to describe the three children in each family, but I like them all, and they are likely to be heard from in music, art and other activities. I talked to George K in Schenectady, who is about to move to a better job, probably in Hartford.

What this letter doesn’t tell you is that JBK was visiting his oldest son Bryant in Cleveland at a time when Bryant was separated from his family. My mother and I had moved to Richmond VA with her family at about the time JBK left for his assignment in Thailand. My parents eventually reconciled, and then split again in 1975 when I went to college. They divorced in 1976 and my mother remarried but my father never did. I actually never knew that my parents were separated until I read JBK’s letters. The letter that told of that separation was not part of the Family Letter but rather a separate, private letter to his brother Dean.

So that’s how we know that the family letter may not tell the whole story but it is still a goldmine of family history.