The Gift of Openness: Remembering Charles Kelbley

Question: What gift did you give?
Answer: Openness.

Word traveled fast from one program facilitator to another at ARTZ Philadelphia when husband and wife Charles Kelbley and Paula Silver first graced our “ARTZ @ The Museum” programs in 2019. The words “wit,” “humor,” and “insight” came up again and again. So did the word “reserved” sometimes when describing Charles.

Just months after Charles and Paula had joined us at Main Line Art Center for their first “ARTZ @ The Museum” program, everything changed. During the next two and a half years, they participated from Charles’ home study, as ARTZ Philly’s previously all-in-person programs were converted to all-online programs because of the COVID pandemic. Charles, an avid reader and scholar who was navigating life with macular degeneration as well as with mixed dementias, seemed to open up once we began to meet online. He could lean in towards the computer monitor as needed and see the details of the works of art we were discussing as a group, whereas during our in-person programs, he would have had to guess at many of those details. As a result, Charles’ demeanor gradually changed from reserved to communicative, even chatty if the conversation so moved him, sometimes sparring jokingly with other participants. When we launched our music program “ARTZ Notes,” we saw Charles come into his own in other ways, whether singing along to popular tunes from the 1960’s in his remarkable baritone or listening raptly with Paula to clips from performances of classical music and jazz and then discussing the performances with other members of the group.

It is always our hope that the people who participate in our programs, whether diagnosed with dementia or care partners, will feel that the programs are theirs – theirs to shape and theirs to change when they feel so moved. Charles did just that, requesting that we launch a facilitated conversation program specifically for men in a similar stage of dementia to his own, in which they might talk about current affairs or other topics of interest to each of them. He felt this was missing from our roster of programs. The “Sunshine Club,” as the group named themselves, met regularly for nearly a year. While Charles did not remain a member of the group for more than a few months (by his own choice), its existence was his gift to the other members, who continued to enjoy the unique blend of camaraderie, humor, mutual empathy, and openness they experienced with each other thanks to Charles.

Charles was a philosopher, a legal scholar, a career-long educator who reveled in thoughtful and meaningful conversation. He and Paula became mentors in our “ARTZ @ Jefferson” program, in which he shared with health professions students from Thomas Jefferson University and medical students from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine his life experiences and his experiences of a life now inflected by illness. He also shared with them his educator’s generosity and care. Claire S., one of his students at Jefferson, was so moved by her time spent with him that she remained in contact with both Charles and Paula, visiting him just weeks before his death. Charles, though in the final stages of dementia, greeted Claire with a warm “I know you!” when she visited. It was the very first time they had met in person (the mentoring program had taken place online). Claire has told us that in his time as her mentor, Charles made it a point to give “me the kind of openness that is rare to find on a Zoom call … offered that openness and vulnerability that really created a sense of community.” In turn, she recalls, Charles noted that Claire had given him the gift of making him feel “at home.”

Once Charles felt at home with us and with his fellow participants at ARTZ, there was rarely a time when he did not offer openness to all who shared the virtual space of the programs with him, whether offering it with wry humor or profound insight: or—often—both. We who were privileged to share that space with him from 2019 to 2022 will forever be grateful for our time together.