Westonite Finds Solace, Family At Kelly Writers House
Going to college means leaving what is familiar and comfortable. Going to college means leaving home and family. The ensuing pursuit to create or find a homey environment is instinctual. Students will spend weeks, months, even years seeking to feel support, love, and a sense of belonging. For some, the search will be endless; others will find their niche. The lucky ones will find the Kelly Writers House.
The Kelly Writers House is part of the University of Pennsylvania, located in west Philadelphia at 3805 Locust Walk—the heart of Penn’s campus. This innovative and ambitious project is being funded by Westport’s own, Paul Kelly. After graduating as an English major from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, he earned his MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Now the current CEO of Knox & Company investment banking firm, Kelly was instantly enamored with the startup literary community while visiting in 1996. Thanks to his support, the Kelly Writers House recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, and continues to prosper and grow.
Well hidden in plain sight, two trees veil the quaint Victorian house. The verses of William Carlos Williams’ “The Quality of Heaven” are engraved in the stone path to the eastside garden. Formerly the chaplain’s residence, it continues to maintain the integrity of a home even after its conversion to an academic facility in 1995. Classes are conducted in rooms with couches; events and programs are held in an open-parlor dubbed the Arts Café; the kitchen is constantly used to prepare food for guests and speakers.
But what distinguishes the Writers House is its anomalous nature. It is a cozy house amidst high-rise apartments and impressive brick buildings. It is an oasis for creativity amidst a university of pre-professionalism. It is somewhere you are noticed amidst a place where one can easily be overlooked. It is a loving family amidst a city of strangers.
Whoever claimed, “you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family” evidently forgot to tell the Writers House family’s bearded patriarch, Al Filreis. While Al (in his own words) recruits like a swimming coach, he loves his handpicked foster family like a paternal father. First and foremost, Al sets high standards of academic excellence. From classes, to writing, to jobs, he challenges us to dream big, take risks, and achieve our goals. Unlike most young adults, we do not rebel against Al’s parenting. We do not want to disappoint him. We dread the guilt we would bring upon ourselves if we knew we had not tried our hardest. So we listen intently, consider his guidance, and strive to succeed.
Yet, Al’s passionate commitment to his family extends far beyond the realm of academia. He shares in our emotions—our celebrations and defeats; he offers commendation and solace. He builds personal connections with each individual, learning about our hobbies, our opinions—even our love lives. He organizes excursions to Phillies baseball games, marshmallow roasts over the living room fire, and Scrabble nights with pizza. He invites us to dine with his biological family, at his west Philadelphia home. He knows all our biological families too—their first names, their occupations, their e-mail addresses.
Al has overlooked no genre during his pseudo-adoption process. There are my brothers and sisters: the non-fiction writers and journalists. There are my cousins: the fiction storytellers and poets. There are my elders: the staff and professors. Al even covered the family’s quirky side. An older sister of mine founded Penn’s first literary erotica magazine: Quake. One of my uncles dabbles in electronic literature, demonstrating a computer’s literary uses. I have a cousin who taught himself songwriting; he temporarily left the House to record his first album in California. Brought together by a shared appreciation of writing, this eclectic clan is united by their love of the Writers House.
Though we may not be the best of friends outside the House, our family bond is strong. We share the special moments like any other family. Thirty of us cram into the dining room every Thanksgiving for a potluck feast. Every January, wintry literature is read and hot food is devoured at the “Mind of Winter” party. We have weekly Monday soup lunches and Friday homemade breakfasts. On the living room’s couches we lounge, work, and nap. In the kitchen we converse and reminisce over food—there is always food. And we remember these moments during the bittersweet Capstone, a ceremony recognizing those graduating Penn—the children moving out of the Writers House.
I will not be moving out for some time. Only last year, I was the baby in the family. While the transition to college is overwhelming for some, it was not difficult for me. The Writers House nurtured me throughout my infancy. In my first week of school, I discovered the velvety green couch in the sun-bathed alcove off the living room. Bringing my work there every afternoon, my foster family now associates me with the Green Couch. They assume I will be there. When I fail to appear on a given day, they worry like a mother whose son is not home in time for dinner. They worry because they care. They care about me—my well-being, my life.
With Al’s newest foster children arriving, I am no longer the baby. Now, it is my turn to help welcome these young writers into our family—to provide them with support, love, and a sense of belonging. They will learn our family rituals and traditions—and help begin new ones. They will discover their own green couches—personal spaces to thrive in academically and personally. But the most important thing they will learn is they are the lucky ones—for they have found the Kelly Writers House.