This is an extremely difficult thing to write and compile.
Our dear friend Jennifer Adams Kelley passed away on February 26, 2019, after a brief battle with cancer. The Thomas family first met Jennifer nearly 20 years ago at a Doctor Who convention—the very first Chicago TARDIS, in fact. She was the very heart of Doctor Who fandom in the United States. Equal parts kind, knowledgeable, and passionate, Jennifer made the conventions a very welcoming place to us and Caitlin.
When Lynne and Tara O’Shea were soliciting writers for their Doctor Who essay anthology Chicks Dig Time Lords, Jennifer was at the very top of the list. Nobody embodied the community more than Jennifer. Jennifer went on to co-write the history of American Doctor Who fandom, Red White and Who: The Story of Doctor Who in America, a story she was often at the center of.
We are gutted, and Doctor Who fandom will never be the same.
In honor of her contributions to our community, we’ve gathered some remembrances from a few of Jennifer’s friends. When Lynne wrote her own Chicks Dig Time Lords essay, the essay’s theme was about the welcoming kindness of this community of like-minded geeks who love this ridiculous show about an alien who travels through time and space—a person who makes everyone a bit better just because they passed through your life. That was Jennifer. She made us all better by knowing her.
Our love to her husband Phillip, her daughter Valerie, and to all of her friends and family.
Jennifer will be greatly missed.
—Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
Jennifer Kelley was a friend of mine for over two decades, and more than that: we were tied together by our shared passions and experience. Along with Steve Hill, the three of us pooled our resources to create the Outpost Gallifrey Doctor Who Forum in 2001, an online community (supported by my website) that, more than any other, brought together a massive and wide cross-section of Doctor Who fans together in one place. We commiserated about our experiences with our respective conventions (mine, Gallifrey One; hers, ChicagoTARDIS); we both were the public faces of our respective events. But mostly, Jennifer was my dear friend since the 1990s, and I will cherish that friendship forever.
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I knew Jennifer first through her work with the Federation and the videozines that came through the fan networks. Her story writing showed creativity and a sly humor and her talent in costume-making set an early standard. While I was helping with guest escort at Visions and later Gallifrey One (and then later at Registration for Chicago TARDIS), I saw again and again how her patience and skill in organizing made the Masquerade a success at those cons. Many con-goers remembered the early Creation Cons as “exploit the fan cons” and that memory probably influenced Jennifer. When she was in charge of programming, she made sure to have panels that would interest several types of fans. She even went so far as to have Tai Chi for early morning people, and I greatly enjoyed the sessions she led. It was the best way to center yourself for a day of con-attending.
Jennifer worked so hard on collecting information about Doctor Who newsletters and zines and cons for Red, White and Who. I sent her a lot of newsletters to scan and I’m glad people can read the book and see all the work she and her co-authors put into it.
I’m going to miss catching up with her at cons, talking about Doctor Who, and sharing sightings of Man From U.N.C.L.E.
My first real memory of Jennifer Adams Kelley—face to face, not electronic—happened on the closing Sunday of Chicago TARDIS, 2011. She had offered a chance for me to serve as a social media volunteer since I would not have been able to afford Chicago TARDIS that year. Carrying my Linux-powered Panasonic Toughbook, I had managed to provide social media posts throughout the convention and meet some new(ish) friends from Chicago Nerd Social Club.
After reporting back to her about my weekend, Jennifer asked: “I was wondering… do you want to run our charity auction?”
“Yes.” My answer was quick and impulsive, but worth it.
“Good,” she responded. “You had mentioned that on our survey, and we’ve been looking for someone…”
From there, Jennifer and I started a personal and professional relationship as Doctor Who fan organizers. Ironically, Jennifer and I “grew up” in the 1980s heyday of Chicago Who fandom: she was part of the north side Federation; I was part of the south side UNIT Irregulars. If you know someone who became a Doctor Who fan before 2005, you know the drill—we watched it religiously Sunday nights on Channel 11, and we hated pledge nights. (Jennifer and I never met formally during that time due to both the imaginary north/south boundary of Chicago…and she was slightly closer to drinking age than I was, but not by much). As an organizer for the Chicago Doctor Who Meetup, I developed a really strong rapport with Jennifer because of one thing we had in common: a desire to foster a healthy, diverse community for Doctor Who fans.
Whether it involved joke-filled conversations in the car on the way to planning meetings or casually articulating her ideas for programming, Jennifer worked hard to ensure that Chicago TARDIS provided a welcoming place for a wide range of fans. Fighting against the “turnkey convention” approach popularized by certain larger shows, Jennifer’s efforts always focused on the experience of convention attendees as much as they did on overall attendance numbers. Other conventions may have run charity auctions to foster goodwill and/or positive public relations; Jennifer saw it as a way to create unique programming and develop a Friday night cornerstone for attendees.
(Working with her for five years, we raised over $10,000. The auction also developed its own smaller community of CT attendees as well. We were both proud of that fact).
I will always remember Jennifer’s willingness to bring empathy, compassion, and connection to greater Doctor Who fandom. Like many fellow staff members, I enjoyed working with someone who listened to my suggestions and shaped programming which delivered on its promises. She motivated people to embrace their love of the show and their common joys with others (it’s not surprising that many of my friendships in Who fandom evolved through working with other Chicago TARDIS staff). She allowed newer volunteers and staff additions to grow into their roles. Although Chicago TARDIS volunteers may have been labeled “staff”, Jennifer treated them more like friends and family than employees. Jennifer’s compassionate, empathic approach had a huge impact on those who worked with her…including myself. After all, we all shared a sense of wonder at an alien in a blue box that can travel anywhere in space and time.
My last face-to-face memory of Jennifer was March 2016 when she helped me move out of my apartment after my mom’s sudden illness. When I asked what motivated her to help—after all, she lived in the Skokie/Evanston area, I was near Marquette Park—her only comment was, “I know what it’s like to have to move.” It was our first significant interaction since she left Chicago TARDIS, but it was a meaningful gesture that provided great comfort… and that spurred me to say “Yes” when one of those new(ish) friends from 2011 asked for a connection to Chicago TARDIS. In 2017, I helped deliver on that promise…but that’s another story for another time.
One of my favorite Doctor Who quotes states that a person is the sum of their memories, a Time Lord even more so. Jennifer Adams Kelley has transcended that, becoming part of the collective memory of Doctor Who fandom through the people who knew and worked with her. Her dedication and diligence inspired and empowered efforts towards inclusivity and engagement with the greater Doctor Who fan community.
Every Doctor Who fan owes a debt to Jennifer Adams Kelley. All of us who are fortunate to organize around Doctor Who fandom—or any fandom—can take inspiration from her work.
I know I will.
Back in the mid-1980s, I was a young Doctor Who fan just making my first steps in fandom. A key part of Doctor Who fandom in those days was trading and seeing copies of videos that hadn’t yet aired locally. That’s what fan gatherings were for.
Besides seeing blurry copies of Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, or other tele-vision stories would be included things from the Federation, a group of Chicago area fans. These were fan made videos—long before YouTube. They’d be filled with in-jokes that you’d get, or ones that once you research, you’d discover other additional things that you’d be interested in. They demonstrated to me that fandom was a participatory sport.
When the members of the Federation came to the Doctor Who convention that I helped organize in 1988, it was just as much of an accomplishment as getting any of the guests of honor.
Jennifer would continue to be a regular part of my Doctor Who fandom life for the following years—keeping it alive while it was off the air, and welcoming new fans discovering costuming. I’ll miss her, but also never forget her contributions to the community.
Jennifer Adams Kelley was a spirit guide for Doctor Who fandom. I was fortunate enough to first meet and get to know her in 1985 when I became an outer worlds member of the Chicagoland Doctor Who club called the Federation. Jennifer was one of the founders. The Feds were well known for their fan videos and their participation in many costume contests in the conventions of the early 1980s. Jennifer herself made, or helped make, many of the costumes that the group wore, going out of her way to ensure screen accuracy. This eventually led her to become a master seamstress, and even the con chairperson for the nationally renowned CostumeCon when it came to Chicago for a rotation. Before the word “cosplay” had been coined she was quick to remind people that “costuming” had been going on in sci-fi fandom since the first WorldCon.
In the ’80s, the Federation was well known for their outrageous skits at costume contests. It was Jennifer who kept the troupe on-track and made sure that these skits did not cross the line into obscenity, which is quite easy for a group of high school and college students. When the members of the club became too rowdy at cabaret performances at cons, she would be the one to ask for calm or to make sure that there were no conflicts or bad feelings with event organizers.
Her kind-hearted soul looked for inclusion and longed to keep everyone involved. Her own guidance came from the Doctor themselves, and some of her favorite characters such as Sarah Jane Smith and Peri Brown, who she often performed as in many fan videos. Like the Doctor, she embraced all fans—regardless of the race, gender, sexual orientation, beliefs, or status.
Besides acting in fan videos, she was a writer (and not just of fan videos). She wrote fiction for fanzines, she wrote and edited club newsletters (such as for The Watchers Doctor Who club at Northwestern University, or The Federation’s own newsletter “It’s It”). Her writing led her to even greater venues such as being a contributor to the Hugo award-winning Chicks Dig Time Lords and the Outside In series of books. She topped this off in a collaborative effort called Red White and Who: The Story of Doctor Who in America. This was the definitive effort on the history and the fandom of the show in the United States.
Some of the other editors and writers had to argue with her to include some of her own accomplishments and stories in the book. She had been responsible for, or involved in, a number of significant turns in American Whovian fandom that could not be ignored. Always humble, she reluctantly agreed that another co-author should cover some of the history she was a part of. Jennifer herself worked on events such as the 1990s Visions series of conventions. She ran the costume contest at Gallifrey One, the large Doctor Who convention in Los Angeles. She was one of the fans that helped to start the Chicago TARDIS convention, which will celebrate its 20th year sadly without her. She eventually was a guest of honor herself at conventions such as Concinnity, GaNGCon, and Console Room.
And she was not a one-trick pony either. She was very active in the fandom of the Beatles and the Monkees. She loved Harry Potter as well. She was also always willing to be a resource to people if they were planning their own events, and helped connect people across fandoms to make events bigger and better. She innovated some of those events, such as creating a game room at Chicago TARDIS, paving a bridge between tabletop gaming and Doctor Who. She welcomed artists into an artists’ alley, and suggested a costume cavalcade to have cosplayers show off their work without the pressure of a masquerade event. Her mission was to find a way for everyone to enjoy themselves. She was also a devoted wife and mother to top it all off.
When Jennifer passed away on February 26th of this year, the internet exploded. Well, at least the internet feeds of Doctor Who fans. Hundreds of fans, with no exaggeration, posted on Facebook and other social media about the loss of one of fandom’s great champions. The outpouring of love and sympathy was staggering. Many of these friends and people had been brought together because of events that Jennifer had planned or been a part of. Many of the people commiserating knew each other because of Jennifer’s efforts. Friends gave each other hugs. Kind and loving words were shared in forums. People simply wanted everyone to experience love. It was what Jennifer would have done.
Jennifer’s last fan video that she participated in was a parody video made by the Federation posted on YouTube called “It’s Still Doctor Who to Me”, which celebrated Jodie Whitaker’s entrance as the Doctor. It is meant to remind fans that the show is not any different now. Somehow, I cannot help but think that without Jennifer, Doctor Who fandom will be a bit different. But we can celebrate her by living as she would have—like the Doctor—and accepting those around us and making the world a better place for all they touch. She continues to be our spirit guide.
Still following her lead,
© 2019 Uncanny Magazine