The polio came suddenly, when James Kellen was playing in a football game his junior year in high school. Soon he was flat on his back, paralyzed, and was told he would spend the rest of his life in a hospital bed.
How differently things turned out.
Determined to live a meaningful life despite the sobering prognosis, Kellen turned to education and the Catholic faith. He put his mind to work where his body couldn’t, and won renown for his academic skills over a 40-year career as a University of St. Thomas librarian.
“Jim was entirely humble and dependent on God,” said John Davenport, a history professor who worked with Kellen for 23 years. “He was a pious, cheerful man who knew his limitations, and knew the world wasn’t a perfect place, but trusted in God’s provision for every part of his life.”
Kellen, 84, died May 9 at Catholic Eldercare in northeast Minneapolis, where he had lived in recent years.
In Kellen’s final years, he was the first to arrive at mass and last to leave after leading the Divine Mercy prayer, said former Minneapolis City Council Member Joe Biernat, who met Kellen at church and became a friend.
“He was so inspiring through his presence,” Biernat said. “You look at him and realize this man has lived his life with these physical challenges. He carried this heavy cross all his life and accomplished so much.”
Kellen’s long association with St. Thomas began as a student. A native of Woodstock, Minn., he graduated from the St. Paul college in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree in English and received a master’s degree in education there in 1958. He also received a bachelor’s degree in library science from what was then the College of St. Catherine in 1959, and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Minnesota in 1965.
It was noted at Kellen’s funeral that he earned his degrees with the use of only three fingers, Biernat said.
Kellen began working at O’Shaughnessy Library at St. Thomas in 1958 and, in 1970, took charge of the library’s technical services department.
“Principally, I am in charge of acquisition of materials and cataloging, which means I’m responsible that the book appears in the right class and has proper form of entry and subject headings,” he told a campus publication in 1974.
Because of Kellen’s efforts, St. Thomas now has one of the most significant rare manuscript collections anywhere, said Davenport, who as university archivist headed the library’s special collections division.
Described as “quiet and perseverant,” Kellen lived on campus the entire time he worked at St. Thomas, first in a student dorm and then at a faculty residence.
He became known to thousands of students and educators over the years. Despite being unable to walk or use his right arm, he propelled his wheelchair across campus and later graduated to a battery-driven chair. When Kellen retired in 1995, the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas, said: “I can’t picture St. Thomas without thinking of Jim.”
Kellen was a man of deep faith. In a campus video made in the 1990s, he reflected that many people “just don’t understand that if you don’t have God in your life, these other things don’t really matter, ultimately. When you come to the end, it’s just going to be you and God.”
Kellen collected books and periodicals about Luxembourg, the country of his heritage. He donated them to St. Thomas and also his personal collection of first edition works authored by English Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc, Davenport said.
Kellen had no immediate survivors. He was preceded in death by his parents, Henry and Lenore Kellen, and his brothers, William and Tom.