The Family Letter Blog

Connecting Generations


Life in Bloomington, Indiana

Joseph B Kingsbury moved to Bloomington, Indiana at the end of summer 1946 with his wife Kitty and their two boys, my father, Bryant Kingsbury who was 14 at the time of the move and Preston Deane Kingsbury who had just turned 10 in August that year. The family had lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland (just on the edge of Washington, DC) before the move and that was also where Kitty and the boys lived when JBK was in Tehran, Iran for most of 1944.  

The moved marked the beginning of JBK’s career as a professor of Government at Indiana University, returning to university teaching after many years in government service and working for a private consulting firm. In an early account from this time JBK writes: 

October 31, 1946 –We have been in Indiana 2 months. The country is charming, the weather has been beautiful and warm, the faculty and townspeople easy to get along with. The boys like school better than ever before and seem to have more friends than they did in Chevy Chase. I could be happier than ever before but Kitty seems determined not only to wreck herself, but to take us all with her.

 This is the first account in a file labelled “KBK” in my grandfather’s neat, distinctive print. The file is an inch thick with letters, both typed and handwritten, mostly from JBK documenting four years of Kitty’s drinking habits and bizarre behavior. There’s no benefit to blogging about the details, other than to say they provide a lot of insight into what my father and uncle lived through and leave me even more amazed than ever about my grandfather’s patience and resilience.  

I’ve read through most of JBK’s letters before but I always find something interesting that I missed the first time. Today’s tidbit comes from a letter in the KBK file dated May 17, 1949 in which JBK analyzes his behavior to evaluate the merit of Kitty’s claims that he is responsible for all of her unhappiness.  

I love it for his succinct but accurate description of the Kingsbury and Bush families. When I think about my Kingsbury and Bush ancestors who moved to Iowa in the early to mid- 1800s I tend to lump them together under the labels – religious, hard-working pioneers; strong, mid-western stock; salt of the earth. It’s interesting to read JBK’s perspective on the differences between the two families and his perspectives on self-analysis. 

I don’t know anything harder to do than see ourselves as others see us. Too much introspection is like a disease; I know, because I suffered with it between the ages of 12 and 30, and I have been trying ever since to get over it. But when we are in a cold war, with no referees and no rules, I had better examine myself as critically and objectively as possible and see if I am as right as I think I am. I have no illusions that I can see all my faults, but I shall make an honest attempt. This is my story and it is bound to be one-sided. If I bring you in, it is because it is impossible to leave you out. We are still husband and wife. I shall not go back into history any more than is necessary to explain the present situation. 

It would be foolish to deny that I am still influenced by my parents and early life. I am the product of two rather different families, the Kingsburys, Vermont and Iowa farmers; hard-working, thrifty, puritanical in their religion and morals, undemonstrative, but capable of genuine liking for and kindness to people. The Bush family were more sensitive, imaginative, humorous, and demonstrative, more intellectual in their interests but equally devout in their religion. I was brought up to believe God punished wrong-doing, and the Bible and the church were necessary to keep one straight. I was 25 years old and in graduate school before I had serious doubts that the Bible and the church had all the truth. Then I reacted rather bitterly against churches, but I guess I never lost my fundamental religious nature and never will.  

In my reaction against early piety and strictness, forbidden pleasures became very alluring: smoking, drinking, gambling, forbidden books, women, etc. That was the Prohibition era and the gay 20’s when many young people lost their inhibitions. I had a short and very unsatisfactory affair with a high school teacher in St. Louis – aside from that I was terribly innocent and ignorant of women and quite content to be a bachelor. When I met you, I was beginning to see that bachelors usually turned into queer, selfish, old-maidish persons, and I didn’t want to get that way. The thought that a girl as young, beautiful and sophisticated as you could be interested in me was exciting and flattering.

 Of the early days of their relationship he writes: 

I suffered tortures between the time I met you and the time I asked you to marry me – and milder hell from that time until we were married. My natural caution told me not to, and my study of Sociology told me we were too different to get along well. My newly awakened gambling spirit and my physical desires said “do it.” In the end I think my decision was rational. I convinced myself that I could get along with anyone and you were a very desirable creature.

I will always think of the first 5 years of our married life as happy ones. I was proud of your beauty, your social poise, your hospitality, your initiative, your hard common sense, and many other qualities. I thought it was a case of two quite different people supplementing each other’s lacks and proving that common likes, values and traits were not necessary to successful marriage. We did have some good times those first 5 years, and we were proud and happy when the first baby came.

 Hope I’ve left you wanting more – I just can’t get enough of my grandfather’s writing. I never knew Kitty, but from reading his letters, I get an image of what she was like.




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.

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A Significant Weekend

One of the biggest challenges I face in compiling family history is figuring out what to do with random bits of information. The first weekend of 2015 offers a perfect reason for a short post about two significant dates in the life of Joseph Bush Kingsbury. He’ll be featured in a longer post later this week that I’m working on for the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge.

For the last several years of his life, JBK lived in Saginaw, Michigan with his youngest son, Preston Deane Kingsbury (Deane) and his family, which includes Deane’s wife Nancy and daughters Peggy and Stacy. My father Bryant Kingsbury and I visited Saginaw for JBK’s 92nd birthday in June 1982. That may have been when we helped build a wooden ramp to make it easier for JBK to get in and out of the house with his walker.  He liked to walk to the mailbox everyday.

By late December JBK’s health began to fail and from a recent conversation with Nancy, the family knew that he was approaching the end of his life on earth. On January 3, 1983, just before dinner, JBK laid down for a nap.  According to Deane there was nothing unusual about him taking a nap before dinner. Nancy recalls that he had not been eating much the previous two days, maybe just drinking a little water, another sign that his body was shutting down.

Stacy, who would have been 15 at the time, went to check on Papa Joe and discovered he was dead. Stacy had been spending a lot of time with Papa Joe in the previous months since her older sister Peggy had just started college at Michigan State University.

Other than how my 3 G grandmother Betsy Williams Bryant died (in her rocking chair on her front porch with her knitting in her lap), I can’t think of a better way to go. Nancy remembers that in the days before January 3 Papa Joe commented, “The light is so bright.”

Ninety-two years, six months, eleven days – not a bad run. RIP Joseph B Kingsbury

Had he lived but one more day, JBK would have celebrated the 55th anniversary of his marriage to Katherine Gertrude Bryant (Kitty).  Kitty died in December 1959 so they had almost 32 years together.  I know from his letters, they had a tumultuous relationship. I also know from his letters, especially the early ones, that he loved her very much. He admired her for her intelligence, beauty and poise.