Kenyon Women's Oral History Project Home Page

Roberta Chalmers 1937-1956

Kenyon Women's Oral History Project Home Page

The relationship between Gordon and Roberta Chalmers could not have been more different from that of the Pierces. Like the Pierces, they did meet in academia, but that is where the similarities end. The Chalmers met in college. When Gordon and Roberta met, she had already become the protégé of one the greatest American poets when she won a poetry contest in college and the judge wanted to meet her. That judge was an unknown poet named Robert Frost, who played quite a crucial role not only in Roberta Chalmers' life, but in the life of Kenyon College as well. Initially he fostered her love of poetry and writing, which incited her to go to Queen Anne's College at Oxford while she was studying at there, she was told that America did not have a literary review like the prestigious British Quarterlies and the Kenyon Review was conceived at that moment. It was at Oxford that she met Gordon Chalmers in 1927. They became very close and were married on September 3, 1929. They taught at Mount Holyoke College together; from there they moved to Rockford College. It was here that Gordon Chalmers had his first taste of presidency. Kenyon College needed a president after William Pierce, their president of forty years, announced his retirement. At first the Chalmers were hesitant to leave Rockford but because of Gordon's deep love for liberal education he could not resist. The Chalmers came to Kenyon in 1937, but Gordon did not officially become president until the fall of 1938.

When President Pierce left, a lot of faculty followed suit; however, this proved to be a blessing. Roberta and Gordon had had an unspoken understanding that when the opportunity presented itself, they would start a literary review because she thought that there should be an American Literary review of the quality that could be compared to the excellent British quarterlies of the eighteenth century. Originally, the Chalmers asked their longtime friend, Robert Frost, to come to Kenyon with them to undertake this endeavor. Fortunately, he turned it down, saying that New England was his home. He did, however, suggest a young poet whom he had met at a banquet who seemed perfect for the job of creating a Review, John Crowe Ransom. Ransom was then a professor at Vanderbilt University. He had no intention of leaving but agreed to visit Kenyon with the Chalmers on their first visit. Ransom fell in love not only with the campus but the opportunity to focus more on his writing. He decided that Kenyon College was the next step for him. One of his close friends urged the University to entice him to stay but they did not make an effort. Consequently, John Crowe Ransom and his wife left for Kenyon College where he was to become an English Professor. After he had the support of the trustees, Gordon approached Ransom about the prospect of a review, Ransom enthusiastically accepted the challenge. With the help of Dr. Frank Bailey and Roberta Chalmers, the Kenyon Review was established in 1939 as a literary review. Besides being credited with the founding of one of the greatest literary magazines America has ever produced, Roberta Chalmers was the first female member of the faculty. While she was at Kenyon she "directed tutorial study" in the areas of British Literature, focusing on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her first priority, however, was the Review, even though she allowed Ransom and Bailey to determine its direction.

Roberta Teale Swartz Chalmers (From left to right:

Gordon and Roberta helped Kenyon achieve national as well as international acclaim in regards to their success with the Heritage of English Speaking Peoples and their Responsibility Conferences in 1946 and 1947 and the Kenyon School of English in the summers of 1948, 1949, and 1950. Also of note was their development of the advanced placement program of the College Entrance Examination board known originally as the Kenyon plan. All of these stellar accomplishments prompted a visit from
Lord and Lady Kenyon, the British peer whose family name the college bears. An even more impressive accomplishment was the relationship that existed between Chalmers and her husband. He gave her the key to previously locked doors and she boldly walked through them. She was a pioneer when women were not seen as such, but what truly made her great was ability to assess situations. She led by her example, when words were necessary she commanded them like a general to an army, but when silence was essential she sat back like a proud mother watching her child grow up. She was an accomplished poet, who was compared to the likes of Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and John Keats. The extent of her involvement with the college has not really been widely acknowledged.

Her dedication and love for Kenyon was second only to her dedication and love for her family. Like Sophia Chase, she achieved remarkable success while raising four children, including, in Roberta's case, a set of twins. Roberta worked hard and was dedicated in all aspects of her life. She was an extraordinary poet, educator, friend, mother and most of all, wife. The Chalmers are truly an example of how a husband-wife team should work. They, like the Chases, are the exemplification of the ideal relationship for Kenyon. Gordon Chalmers was later honored for his efforts with the naming of the Gordon Keith Chalmers Memorial Library in 1962 where Robert Frost was the speaker.

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