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Obituary of Phyllis I. Horton Kelly

The Joiner History Room is sad to announce that our leader, County Historian, and a wonderful woman has passed away. She was devoted to history and genealogy and through her efforts and those of many volunteers the JHR has become an archive second to none.

Phyllis I. (Horton) Kelley, 87, of DeKalb, passed away Sunday, July 3, 2011, at the DeKalb County Rehab & Nursing Center.

She was born June 18, 1924, at home, in rural Clay County, Ind., the daughter of William R. and Nellie E. (Holmes) Horton.

In 1928, when Phyllis was 4 years old, her growing family (she was the sixth of 10 children) moved to Elgin. With her father’s frequent job changes during the Depression years, there were many moves within Elgin and rural Kane County. As Phyllis attended schools in Pingree Grove, Elgin and Plato Center, her favorite place to be was the Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin. She was a “bookworm” from a young age. She graduated from Plato Township High School in 1943. War industry jobs that Phyllis held from 1942-1945 included Hawley’s (riveting pith helmets) in St. Charles, Illinois Case Factory (inspecting bomb casings) in Elgin, and Elgin National Watch Factory (monitoring jewels used for ship’s chronometers). For a time she also experienced the coed life at Olivet Nazarene College.

While still in high school, Phyllis began a wartime correspondence with a handsome Army Air Corpsman, who was the brother of her older sister Margaret’s husband. She thought he looked like Clark Gable, and their courtship by mail continued until the end of the war, when a proposal could be made in person. Phyllis Horton married Lewis E. Kelley on Sept. 29, 1945, at the Nazarene Church in Elgin.

After living in Elgin (1945-1950) and on an Algonquin farm (1950-1956), the couple and their two daughters moved to a rural DeKalb farm in 1956. It was the year of DeKalb’s Centennial celebration, and Phyllis’ interest in the history of her new home started to take root.

In the late 1960s, her insatiable curiosity and love of history led Phyllis to begin researching her own ancestors and those of her husband. She began a quest of traveling to cemeteries, courthouses, archives and libraries, and interviewing relatives. She was able to acquire precious family photographs and letters. She treasured every new find, and in 1978 began sharing her discoveries in an annual Horton-Kelley family newsletter which she sent far and wide at Christmas time. Eventually, she began writing her own memoirs. Phyllis and her daughters worked together to combine her genealogy research and her own family memories in "The Horton Chronicles," a 288-page book published in 2001. Phyllis became the family’s “go to” authority for information on relatives past and present, and helped keep scattered family members in touch. Beginning in 1976, she enthusiastically led the organization of annual Horton Family Reunions, and made the signature tablecloth, the sign-in ledger, and displays of photos into a tradition.

Meanwhile, on the local scene, Phyllis became a founding member of the Genealogical Society of DeKalb County. She served as a board member and president, presented programs, headed up the GSDC’s project of copying and publishing the tombstone records of over 60 county cemeteries, and contributed to the Society’s quarterly publication.

After working at Kroger grocery stores in DeKalb and Rochelle for 20 years, Phyllis landed her dream job. DeKalb County Clerk Terry Desmond employed her in 1979 to inventory, organize, and index (on file cards in the pre-computer era) the large collection of old records that had long been hidden away in the courthouse basement. Desmond was delighted to find someone who had already spent years reading old handwritten documents. Her work with county records was instrumental in the local genealogy society’s 1981 publication of Naturalization Records of DeKalb County Illinois, 1852-1908. The Illinois State Genealogical Society recognized her work with a certificate “for outstanding and meritorious service in your society, thereby promoting genealogical and historical study and research in Illinois.” When she retired from the county clerk’s office in 1984, the DeKalb County Board presented Phyllis with a certificate of appreciation for her services in the preservation of the county’s historical documents. Little did they know she was just getting started!

Following her appointment to the DeKalb County Sesquicentennial Committee, Phyllis was involved for two years in planning and participating in the activities and special events of the county’s 1987 celebration. In her favorite role, as a teacher of history, she shared her knowledge of DeKalb County’s 150-year history with a series of newspaper articles and appearances on a local radio interview program. Phyllis became such a popular speaker that she presented nearly 200 programs, lectures, slide shows, classes and radio interviews on a variety of topics from 1984-2001. She particularly enjoyed 10 years of teaching Elderhostel classes at Stronghold in Oregon. Her favorite topics included newspaper research and memoir writing.

On April 19, 1989, Phyllis was officially given the title “DeKalb County Historian” by the DeKalb County Board. After this appointment she went right to work, with Marian Anderson at her side, establishing the Joiner History Room (an archives and research center named for past county clerks who saved the records she had organized) in a small space set aside for that purpose in the basement of the newly-renovated DeKalb County Courthouse. The initial collection of official county records was expanded through donations to include 100 years of bound local newspapers, large photo and postcard collections, local history and genealogy collections, city directories, and a variety of publications. Phyllis and her hard-working volunteer staff photocopied newspaper articles to create obituary files as well as local history subject files dubbed “Neat Stuff.” The JHR soon outgrew its space, and the County Board made arrangements to move it to the original Carnegie Library section of the newly-expanded Sycamore Public Library in 1998. This work was Phyllis’ passion, and she continued to be excited about every new find and every success in providing just the right photo and piece of information for everyone who requested help. She was able to continue that work until just a few weeks before her passing.

Writing was another passion, as Phyllis penned the Joiner Room Journal and contributed regularly to Corn Silk, the publication of the DeKalb County Historical-Genealogical Society. Phyllis and her staff authored the 2007 book "Images of America: Sycamore." She also contributed to documentaries on Lincoln Highway, one-room schools, the Underground Railroad, and “DeKalb Stories.” She will appear in the new documentary about Sycamore that will debut at the Sycamore Film Festival in September.

The proudest achievement of Phyllis’ life, and what she wanted to be remembered for, was establishing the Joiner History Room and seeing it become such a great success. She received much recognition and many awards and honors, but the one that meant the most to her was the 2006 Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, as she was such an admirer of Terkel’s oral history books.

Phyllis is survived by her daughters, Patsy Lundberg of DeKalb and Maureen Kelley of Sycamore; and her “favorite son-in-law,” William Lundberg of DeKalb. She is also survived by sisters Alice Thurnau and Ina Ahrens; brothers Eugene and Melvin; and a large extended family.

She was preceded in death by her husband Lewis on Sept. 15, 1981; sister Margaret Kelley; and brothers Francis Harold, William Wayne, John and Walter.

Visitation will be from 1-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Friday, July 8 at the Butala Funeral Home and Crematory in Sycamore.

Funeral Services on Saturday will be private and a private burial will take place Monday at the Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church Cemetery, near Pingree Grove.

In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Joiner History Room Endowment Fund in care of the local family owned and operated, Butala Funeral Home and Crematory, 1405 DeKalb Ave., Sycamore, IL 60178. For information visit ButalaFuneralHomes.com or call 815-895-2833.


DeKalb Daily Chronicle, 7 Jul 2011