Albert “Kerck” Kelsey was a historian, author and descendant of a prominent Maine family that included the governor who led Maine during the Civil War.
He also was the first Mainer known to have died of COVID-19 – on March 26 at OceanView in Falmouth at the age of 87.
Kelsey’s death marked the beginning of a somber period in Maine history. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has claimed 78 more Mainers in the eight weeks since Kelsey died.
And his death had a unique effect on Maine’s sitting governor, who had declared a civil emergency only days beforehand. Gov. Janet Mills said Kelsey’s life, and his famous ancestors, are reminders that each of the deaths noted in Maine’s daily statistics is a person with a story.
Albert Kelsey’s son Pete Kelsey wrote to Mills after his father’s death.
“There’s a long tradition in our family of public service in Maine,” Pete Kelsey wrote. “We are Washburns. Like you, Israel Washburn, my third great uncle, was governor of Maine during a national emergency, the Civil War. All of the Washburns/Kelseys, living or dead, sincerely thank (you for) your kindness and dedication.”
FAMILY MAN, ADVENTURER
Albert Kelsey was remembered by his family as an adventurer, historian and storyteller, who developed a passion for the Washburn family history late in his life.
A Massachusetts native, he was married to Susan Kelsey for 62 years. The couple raised three sons.
In his early years, Kelsey worked for a publishing company selling textbooks. His son said he oversaw the Southwest region and traveled for up to two weeks at a time.
“We were small kids,” his son recalled. “He would be gone and leave my mother with three screaming boys, which she teased him about her whole life.”
Kelsey retired from Bank of Boston after a successful career in sales.
He was an avid reader, whose house was always full of books. Pete Kelsey said if his father read something interesting or unusual, he would write it down. He said his father traveled many places he read about, especially if it was off the map.
“My brothers and I grew up being dragged all over New England sleeping in tents and with canoes,” his son said. “He loved being outside. He wanted to laugh, and he wanted to tell stories. I think storytelling was probably his favorite thing.”
The Kelseys moved to Maine in the early 1990s and built a house in South Freeport overlooking Harraseeket Harbor. Most recently, the couple lived at OceanView in Falmouth. Susan Kelsey died in November.
Pete Kelsey laughed sharing memories of his parents’ life together. He chuckled about how his mother teased his father his whole life for taking her camping for their honeymoon – with another couple.
He said his parents laughed a lot and loved each other deeply. He said he once asked his father the secret to their long marriage and lasting friendships.
“My dad said, ‘Laughter … just laughing out loud with people you care about,’” his son said. “I remember as a little kid, the adults would come over and bring their kids. We would be banished to the den or something like that. My parents would be in the living room with their friends just howling. I would say they had a great ride. Truly.”
Later in his life, Kelsey connected with his roots.
He spent his later years writing, researching and giving lectures on the Washburn family, the history of Freeport and the South Freeport Congregational Church.
Kelsey was a descendant of Cadwallader C. Washburn, one of the famous members of the Washburn family, whose estate is preserved at the Washburn Norlands Living History Center in Livermore.
Israel Washburn Sr., Cadwallader’s father, purchased the original homestead in 1809 and raised 10 children. His sons gained prominence in state and national politics. Among them was Israel Washburn Jr., who served as governor during the Civil War. His portrait is on display at the Blaine House.
Mills noted Kelsey’s death during a televised briefing with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention on April 16, shortly after extending the state’s civil emergency order to mid May. Mills read part of an email she received from Pete Kelsey.
“No, you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but yes, we are family,” Kelsey wrote. “We are Mainers. I am so grateful to you. Thank you so very, very much.”
In a recent phone interview, Mills expressed appreciation for Kelsey’s email and the messages of support she has received from Mainers across the state. She reflected on the moment she realized Kelsey’s connection to the Washburn family.
“When he said, ‘We are Washburns.’ I went oh my God … the Washburn family,” Mills said. “I grew up in Franklin County. I’ve been by the Washburn farm, Norlands museum thousands of times. It’s historic. My kids would go there on school days and pretend to be people living on a farm in the 1800s. The Washburn family is still, this is how Norlands put it, ‘No other American family ever has produced an equivalent level of political and business leadership in a single generation than that of the Washburns from Livermore, Maine.’ They are historic. They are embedded in my mind.”
Pete Kelsey remembered the day his father set out to learn more about the Washburn family.
“It all started with a simple question,” he said. “I asked my father what in the world is up with my middle name? What is Washburn? Why?’ Then, everything changed. He got excited and I got excited.”
Kelsey went back to school in his 60s to study 19th-century American History, earning a master’s degree in history from Harvard University in 2002.
He went on to write three books on the Washburns. His first was a rewrite of his thesis at Harvard, titled “Israel Washburn Jr., Maine’s Little-Known Giant of the Civil War.” He followed up with “Remarkable Americans” and “Prairie Lightning.”
His son reflected on his father’s passion for sharing the history of the Washburn family.
“He loved it with absolute passion to the point of obsession,” he said. “My brothers and I would have to be careful. We would be home having dinner and something about a Washburn might come up. My mother would say, ‘No.’ She knew that she could lose the next hour and a half of her life getting a lecture on this amazing family.”
Like his father, Pete Kelsey shared countless stories about the Washburns. He laughed, saying he got his question answered about his middle name.
Cadwallader C. Washburn, Pete Kelsey’s third great-grandfather, was voted by the brothers as the most famous. He traveled west and built a flour mill at Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. The mill produced Gold Medal Flour, which is now General Mills. He served two terms in Congress and was elected governor of Wisconsin. He was a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Pete Kelsey shared one of his earliest memories of visiting his grandfather’s home in Cape Cod. He remembered three swords hanging on the wall near his grandfather’s workbench.
“As little boys, we thought they were the coolest things we had ever seen,” Pete Kelsey said. “One of the first things my dad said, ‘You were named after your third great-grandfather, who was a general in the Civil War. You remember those swords in the Cape?’ I’m like, ‘yeah.’ He says, ‘Those were his.’
Pete Kelsey recalled the long road trip he and his father made West to retrace the Washburn brothers’ footsteps. He said they visited Cadwallader C. Washburn’s gravestone in La Crosse, Wisconsin. The 45-foot tall granite obelisk towers above all other monuments in the cemetery.
“I remember looking up at this thing,” his son said. “I mumbled to my father, ‘What a colossal ego.’ He said, ‘No, come over here.’ He walked me over to this tiny little nondescript white stone that said “CC Washburn, Major General.” My dad said, ‘This is what your grandfather wanted.’”
Another brother, Israel Washburn Jr., was a rising political figure in Maine from the 1840s through the early 1860s. He sat in the Maine Legislature in 1842 during the Northeast boundary dispute. He was re-elected in 1850 and served the next 10 years representing the Penobscot district. He became a founding member of the Republican party. He also served as governor of Maine during the Civil War from 1861 to 1863.
Another brother, Elihu Washburn, served in Congress representing Illinois from 1853 to 1869. He was close friends and allies with Abraham Lincoln. After Lincoln was assassinated, he served as Secretary of State for two weeks.
A former South Freeport resident, Albert Kelsey spent his later years writing books and giving lectures on the Washburn family.
“My dad was the Washburn soothsayer,” his son said. “He knew all the stories. He had done all the research. He gave lectures everywhere. He was pals with some prominent Civil War experts and authors. He knew it all.”
Mills reflected on Kelsey’s life, saying she wishes she knew him.
“For his son to say he wasn’t just COVID-19 No. 1. He was a human being,” Mills said. “It pertains to every single one of these people who have died in Maine with this virus. It is not just this gentleman, who was absolutely remarkable. It’s the same for everyone who succumbs to this virus, too. Every one of them has a story.”
FAMILY HISTORY BECOMES A LEGACY
Albert Kelsey had some underlying health issues and was considered high risk for COVID-19. He contracted the virus, as did his sister-in-law, Gertrude “Trudy” Marvin, who also lived at OceanView. She died two days after Kelsey on March 28 at age 89.
Another son, Andrew Kelsey, tested positive for COVID-19, but has recovered.
Pete Kelsey said when his father became sick with the virus, he refused treatment.
“He made the choice. ‘I’m good. I’m ready to go. I’m going to refuse treatment. It’s my time. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m out of here,’ ” he said.
Kelsey’s sons were not able to be with him when he died. There was no funeral service or burial. The grieving process has been put on hold because of CDC guidelines for gatherings and social distancing.
Pete Kelsey became emotional talking about Mills referencing his father’s death during the CDC briefing last month.
“I bawled my eyes out,” he said, after watching the televised briefing. “I hadn’t done that since my dad had died. Believe me, it was tears of joy. I completely lost it. Without the governor, dad’s legacy would have been the first death of COVID-19 in the state of Maine. The governor fixed that. In the end, it felt like such a profound gift.”