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Katherine Lee Bates

Born: Falmouth, August 12, 1859,
Died: Wellesley, March 28, 1929

Scholar - Patriot - Poet
Author of "America the Beautiful"

Born on Aug. 12, 1859, Katherine Lee Bates was the fifth child born to William and Cornelia Frances Lee Bates. The family had come to Falmouth in 1858. The Rev. Bates served as pastor of the First Congregational Church on the Village Green.

As noted in church records, Katharine was baptized on September 4, 1859. She was only three weeks old. Because of his illness, her father, Rev. William Bates, was unable to attend church. He was forced to discontinue his preaching the previous May. Now his arms and legs were paralyzed, and he had difficulty breathing. He could not speak above a whisper. A friend, Rev. Professor Butler of Madison University, Wisconsin came to the Bates' home to officiate at Katharine's baptism. William died on September 10, just six days after Katharine's baptism.

He is believed to have died from a tumor in his spine which may have been the result of an earlier injury. He strained his back in 1853 when, in rescuing fellow passengers from a train wreck, he was obliged to rip a seat out of the floor. "Katie" was said to have eased the pain of her mother's first years of widowhood.

At age 12, life in Falmouth ended when the family moved to Granitville, now known as Wellesley Hills. She attended Wellesley High School, graduating in 1874. In 1878, She graduated from the more advanced Newton High School. Bates then entered Wellesley College, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1880 She became president of it's second graduating class and returned to teach for 40 years.

She also studied at Oxford, England, and earned a master's degree in arts from Wellesley College. Over the years, Bates took four year-long sabbaticals to travel (three of which were abroad), plus numerous shorter voyages. Countries she visited included England, Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, France, Spain, Egypt, Palestine, and Norway. In 1916, she would be awarded the degree of Doctor of Literature from Oberlin College. A second honorary degree would be conferred, and a third from Wellesley in 1925 upon her retirement: Doctor of Laws. She had been a teacher for 45 years, one who had inspired immense affection and respect, both personally and professionally.

Author of 32 books and a large number of articles, Dr. Bates was well-traveled, gracious, witty, popular, and scholarly without being pretentious. Falmouth remained her home town, revisited nearly every year.

While on staff at Wellesley College, she met Katharine Coman and began a relationship that lasted for 25 years. Bates and Coman's relationship has been characterized as a romantic friendship. Bates referred to Coman as her "Joy of Life" and wrote many poems about their love.

Both women had successful careers at Wellesley Bates became chair of the English department, while Coman became chair of the Economics Department and Dean of the college. They kept contact with other educated women who lived in couples as they did.

Katherine Lee Bates was the first known writer to introduce Mrs. Santa Claus to the American scene in the book Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, published in 1889 ("Goody" was a common contraction of the day for "goodwife"). It was during that year that she had suffered from the grippe and was on convalescent leave. During that time, she wrote a large amount of children's literature and poetry. She spent 1889-1890 at Oxford. Returning, she felt that as a full professor, she should not concern herself with juvenile literature any more. The sequel to her earlier "Rose and Thorn" (1889) was abandoned. For some time, she devoted her efforts to more serious writing of articles and books, while continuing to write a large amount of poetry. By 1909, however, her position had softened, and she again included children's literature among her output. Later, she would write other poems for children about Christmas, included in Fairy Gold (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1916), which also included "Goody Santa Claus." See: Poems of Christmas by Katherine Lee Bates

At the summit of Pike's Peak, Colorado in 1893 the opening lines of "America the Beautiful" floated into her mind, and gave new meaning to the spectacular view. A sculptor has portrayed the young poet at that moment. America the Beautiful first appeared in print in The Congregationalist, a weekly journal, on July 4, 1895. Professor of English Literature at Wellesley College, Dr. Bates lectured that summer at Colorado College, Colorado Springs.

She rewrote some sections, and the new version was published In The Boston Evening Transcript on Nov. 19, 1904 Perhaps the most intense criticisms centered on the word "beautiful," which some called hackneyed. But Bates refused to change that word, for she claimed it best described America. Following the 1904 publication, part of the third stanza was altered, thereafter, the poem was unchanged; Bates retained the copyright, protecting it from misprints and deliberate changes.

In 1912, Coman was diagnosed with cancer, and Bates nursed her until she died in January, 1914. In 1922, Bates published a limited volume of poetry in sonnet form entitled, Yellow Clover, A Book of Remembrance, where she wrote of their relationship, one which Jane Addams described as the kind of relationship which developed naturally in the community life of a woman's collage.

Only a few years before her death, she wrote to a friend, "So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I'm sometimes not quite sure whether I'm alive or not."

Bates remained at Wellesley until she retired in 1925. In her journal, she quoted Chesterton's lines:

     Lo! I am come to autumn
     Where all the leaves are gold.

In 1926, her last volume of poetry was published (in her lifetime): The Pilgrim Ship. In those final years, her life became more leisurely, more casual, and more intimate. She was still sought out by many, including the New England Poetry Club and the National Hymn Society. She continued to write, and upon request, review the works of others, described as "keen and gentle". Her last collection of verses, America the Dream, was published after her death.

She died early in the morning of March 28, 1929, at the age of 70, listening to the words of Whittier's At Last, read to her by her friend, Mrs. Guild. At Wellesley, the flag at Tower Court was lowered, and then raised to half-staff. After her death, a chair of English literature was endowed in her name at Wellesley. In her obituary, printed in Wellesley's The Townsman, Mr. Bradford wrote:

The death of Katharine Lee Bates means the passing away of one of the most notable citizens of Wellesley, one of the most important figures connected with Wellesley College, and much more than that, a considerable author and creative influence in the whole of American life.

Her ashes were buried beside her parents and her sister in Falmouth's Oak Grove Cemetery. A statue of Dr. Bates was erected in front of the Falmouth Public Library; photographs of Bates are also available at that same site, and at a page at Wellesley College.

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