Cherry Blossoms

Kelley Alison Smith

January 13, 1971 ~ April 1, 2022 (age 51)


Kelley Alison Smith, a public health scholar and administrator at Brown University, proud progressive feminist, nonfiction writer, Unitarian Universalist, Alto II, avid amateur naturalist, fashion icon, lifelong cheese and honey enthusiast, and beloved daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend, died at her home in Lincoln, RI, on April 1, 2022. She was 51.

Kelley was born in January of 1971, when George Harrison's All Things Must Pass topped the charts and the release of Janis Joplin's Pearl encouraged fans to Get It While You Can. Kelley absorbed this notion early; she was, from childhood, deeply curious and engaged, astonishingly open to new experiences, fierce in her affections, profoundly empathetic, and enthusiastic about a wide range of interests, including singing, classic '70s television (which she'd often reenact with her younger sister Gillian), Lilly Pulitzer fabrics, and the study of French. An early dramatic effort, a film about Colonial Connecticut, presaged her fascination with American Studies, her distinct point of view, a talent for collaboration, and Kelley's greatest gift, her capacity for joy, even in middle school. She was outrageously good at having fun.

Kelley was raised in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in the close-knit neighborhood of Mimosa, where she was known for an impressive vintage lunch box collection and the many voices with which she addressed her pets. She grew up in a loving home where the door was always open to friends, and where her family welcomed foster siblings from South Korea and Honduras. Her mother's warmth and concern for others were a hallmark of Kelley's childhood, qualities which Kelley carried into her own life. From her father, she gained both an appreciation of the outdoors, singing, and an undeniable presence on the dance floor. She was an active member of the youth group at Jesse Lee Church, where she also sang in musicals. She excelled at Ridgefield High School, cultivating friendships with students of such diverse interests and dispositions that often Kelley herself was the only point of connection between them. She also befriended teachers, whom she called by their first names the moment she graduated in 1989 (or before, in special cases). Though young, she could already rock a Pucci scarf.

At Smith College, she majored in American Studies and became a member of the Smiffenpoofs, the oldest traditional all-female collegiate a capella group in the United States. During her undergraduate years, Kelley's natural instincts for caring connection, which had always marked her personal relationships, expanded into broader convictions about social justice. For the rest of her life, she remained committed to causes that promote feminism, civil rights for the LGBTQ community, environmental protection (especially of coral reefs), access to health care, and economic and racial equality.

In 1990, she met Samantha Cole at the Newport Folk Festival. They started dating in 1993 and moved in together after Sam got back from traveling in Asia in 1997. Their daughter Carson was born in 2004. On May 18, 2005, Kelley testified before the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee in favor of a bill supporting same-sex civil marriage. Kelley and Sam finally got married in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 2006. The Massachusetts marriage was as official as it got until 2013 when Rhode Island followed suit and allowed two women spousal privileges. It took another two years for the United States to codify the union - 18 years after the two first hitched up the Uhaul.

As an avid reader, Kelley once remarked that she was really a very ethical person 99% of the time, but twice, she permanently borrowed books from the "library" at her Nana's senior apartment complex. Also an avid thinker, Kelley earned a Master's Degree in American Studies at the University of Maryland in 1997 and later earned a Master's in Public Health in 2007 at Brown University, after working for several years at the Population Studies and Training Center.

Kelley put her public-health degree to work conducting research on sexual and reproductive health, and she traveled to South Africa, Bangladesh, and Ethiopia in the course of her early career. In 2010 she, Sam, and Carson moved to American Samoa, where Kelley began a sojourn as field director on a project conducting diabetes research. She supervised a team, oversaw project finances, managed data quality, and encouraged office singalongs; highlights included a version of "Islands in the Stream" in full harmony with her colleagues. Although she missed fresh tomatoes, she loved the island, its people, and its natural wonders. She developed an enthusiasm for snorkeling that lasted the rest of her life. She soon became adept at identifying tropical fish of the Pacific. She particularly enjoyed searching for juvenile French angelfish and Moorish idols amidst blue starfish, or swimming to the spot where she could find ten different kinds of butterflyfish and multiple sea turtles just a minute from shore. She took particular pride in Sam's cottage industry selling artisan rosemary whole wheat bread and Carson's meteoric rise as an island hula-hoop phenomenon.

That fall, after suffering a seizure, Kelley was medically evacuated to New Zealand, where she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and underwent her first craniotomy. She found it encouraging that Keith Richards had been through a successful brain surgery in the same hospital (knowing she hadn't done nearly as many drugs as he has); she was also bolstered by the view of the Ellerslie horse track out her window and the ritual of tea and biscuits twice a day. Ever the cultural omnivore, Kelley explored New Zealand during her difficult months of radiation and recovery, visiting vineyards, sulfur hot springs, local beaches, farmers' markets, and gannet colonies. She learned to count in Maori, realized a lifelong ambition to feed baby lambs, and attended a Sharon Jones concert. She also cultivated a nearly perfect New Zealand accent.

In 2011, Kelley and her family returned to Providence. Under the care of an oncologist at Dana Farber, she resumed an active life-working back at Brown's Population Studies center as an editor and administrator, traveling, raising her beloved daughter, and becoming a pillar of the First Unitarian Church of Providence community. Five years ago, she, Sam, and Carson moved from their home in Riverside to a historic 18th-century house in Lincoln. Kelley had seen the house from the road and dreamed of living there, going for walks from her backyard to Lincoln Woods and searching for warblers and owls. All of these became a daily meditation for Kelley.

Kelley was a source of joy and light to all who knew her. Through her academic career and her work at Brown she met and befriended people from all around the world, a tradition begun in her childhood. She loved snorkeling, bird-watching, gardening, music, books, good food, and the companionship of her adored cats. She traveled widely: India, Italy, Morocco, the Dry Tortugas to name a few. She especially loved spending a week or two every summer in the Adirondacks, a family tradition since visiting her grandmother's lake cabin when she was a child. She also served as backstage manager and emcee at the Harbor Stage of the Newport Folk Festival for nearly twenty years, where she introduced some of her favorite blues, folk, and gospel artists to enthusiastic crowds. Kelley was an expert thrift-store shopper, e-Bay bidder, and excavator of fabric treasures-Lilly Pulitzer prints, colorful batiks, Hermès scarves. She painted, drew, and wrote, and this winter she fulfilled a long-held ambition to publish a piece of creative writing when her poem appeared in the anthology, "Dear Vaccine: Global Voices Speak to the Pandemic."

Kelley is survived by her beloved wife, Sam Cole; her daughter, Carson Cole; her sister, Gillian Smith and her husband Uwe Doeringer and their children Benjamin and Alexander; her parents, Judie and Gary Smith; her brother-in-law, Jason Cole and his wife Shelley and their children Parker and Hamilton; Carson's father, Jesse Damon and his husband Steven Kung; and legions of dear friends from every decade of her life. She leaves a legacy of love, grace, compassion, and laughter. Donations in her memory are welcome at a range of institutions including First Unitarian Church of Providence Kelley Smith Memorial Music Fund, the Adirondack Natural History Museum, Adirondack Museum, Smith College, Planned Parenthood, land and coral reef conservation programs, antipoverty programs/food banks, and social justice/relief/feminist organizations. Kelley would also love for linden, redbud, and mimosa trees to be planted in her memory.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, April 23rd at 2pm at First Unitarian Church of Providence, located at 1 Benevolent Street, Providence, RI 02906. Out of respect for Kelley and anyone else who immunocompromised, we would strongly advise that all guests be vaccinated, and face masks will be mandatory. Bright colors, scarves and hats are all encouraged. Street parking will be available but please allow enough time to walk a few blocks.




To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Kelley, please visit our floral store.


Memorial Service
April 23, 2022

2:00 PM
First Unitarian Church of Providence (Benevolent Street, Providence)

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