Richard L. Kay, 87, emeritus professor at the University of Kansas, has passed away peacefully at his home in Lawrence on July 13, attended by his wife, Sherry Needham Kay.
Richard Kay was born in 1931 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the only son of Lorin and Carolyn (“Polly”) Kay. He grew up in rural Richland Center, WI, where as a boy he was nicknamed “Skip” due to his likeness (red hair and freckles) to a popular cartoon character named Skippy. He attended college at Ripon University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and received a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin (Madison).
He earned a PhD in history in 1959, specializing in the Middle Ages, including philosophy and the history of science, with a dissertation on the procedure of church councils in France. The next year was spent in Brussels on a Belgian American Fellowship. (He declined a Fulbright.) There he studied canon law at the University of Louvain and manuscripts in the Royal Library, as well as in England and Italy. The year in Belgium was followed by another in Madison on a postdoctoral fellowship, which enabled Dr. Kay to eventually compile a book-length bibliography, entitled “Pontificalia,” of 1,249 manuscripts used by Bishops in church services.
Dr. Kay taught at Knox College, the University of Kentucky and the University of Colorado before finding tenure at KU, where he taught for 31 years, from 1967-1999.
He specialized in medieval history, notably on canon law and his special passion, the life and work of Italian poet Dante Alighieri. His favorite course was a lecture on Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he taught nearly every year of his career. Professor Kay wrote a number of books on Dante, pursuing an innovative academic approach which examined Dante as a historical figure, rather than from a literary perspective.
Dr. Kay published over 125 academic works, including his major contribution to the field, “The Council Of Bourges,” which was published in 2002. Following his retirement, Dr. Kay continued to write, completing several academic projects, as well as an extensive family history that he shared with family and friends.
Dr. Kay was a founding member of the Mid-American Medieval Association (MAMA, 1976) and the Midwest Medieval Conference (1962) where he served as conference secretary for over twenty years, as well as initiating the Pseudo Society, a popular annual spoof session for medievalists (1986), the proceedings of which he edited.
Mushrooms were a hobby shared with his wife, Sherry. Dr. Kay won national awards for his photographs of fungi, and co-authored a popular guide to Kansas mushrooms. The Kays had begun a second edition of the guide when illness overtook him; Sherry Kay continues to work to update the book.
Richard Kay was predeceased by parents and his sister Mary Margaret Burnett, of Brooklyn, Wisconsin. He is survived by his loving wife Sherry, and by his children: Lawrence Kay and wife Jennifer of Berkeley, CA and their daughter Sophie Kay; and by his daughter Dorothy Sarah (Sally) Kay, a traveler and captain of the seas, and her fiancée and fellow sailor, Nathan Creamer; and also, Skip’s step-daughters Elizabeth Ross and Gail Thursz, from a previous marriage.
A Celebration of Life will be held at 2:00 p.m. Saturday, July 21, 2018 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrence. Inurnment will be held at Pioneer Cemetery following the ceremony.
The family has asked that charitable contributions be made in Skip’s name to the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, or the Lawrence Humane Society and may be sent in care of Warren-McElwain Mortuary, 120 W. 13th Street, Lawrence, KS 66044.