Katherine Conlee Atwood, historian and author of a significant body of work documenting the cultural history of southern Oregon, died at her home in Ashland, Saturday, May 24, 2014. She was seventy-one and had resolvedly contended with cancer for the past nine years with the support of her husband, David Strother, their friends, and trusted medical advisors. It was during this challenging period that she completed and brought to print Chaining Oregon, her consequential work about the Oregon Land Survey and the surveyors who, in the early 1850s, traversed the territory, laying out the grids of township, range, and section to which all land holdings would be tied.
Kay was born in Bakersfield, Calif., December 14, 1942, to David Stoddard Atwood and Helen Reed Atwood. She was educated in Bakersfield public schools and was a 1964 graduate of Mills College, in theater arts. After earning a Master's degree in theater and stage design from the University of California, Davis, in 1966, she was for several years an instructor at American River College in Sacramento.
In 1969, Kay moved to Ashland to work in set design for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Later, she designed exhibits for the Southern Oregon Historical Society. In the 1970s, she served as consultant for surveys for the USDA, Forest Service, and BLM. She produced numerous applications to the National Register of Historic Places on behalf of the Rogue Valley and Klamath Basin. In 1991, Kay joined the editorial advisory committee of the Oregon Historical Society's quarterly journal. She was committed to safeguarding historical records and was a long-term member of the Oregon State Historical Records Advisory Board. She served briefly as reference librarian at Ashland Public Library.
She was the author of ten published works including Atwood and Strother family genealogical studies completed in 2011 and 2012. In all of her writing, she was able to bring to the forefront the human story behind places and events. Often, her work was illustrated with her own drawings. Her book Illahe (1978) is an authentic account of homesteading in the Rogue River Canyon in the 1860s, based on diaries and interviews with descendants of homesteaders. Mill Creek Journal (1987) is a captivating narrative covering a dramatic incident in Ashland's formative years. Chaining Oregon: Surveying the Public Lands of the Pacific Northwest, 1851-1855, published by McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company in 2008, is considered a primary source that illuminates important but neglected corners in Oregon's early cultural and environmental history.
Kay served on the Ashland Historic Commission (1978-1979), represented southern Oregon on the board of stewards of the Historic Preservation League of Oregon (1983-1986), and was appointed to the Oregon State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation (1993-1997). In 1995, she was honored by the Historic Preservation League of Oregon with the Ruth McBride Powers Award for Lifetime Achievement in Historic Preservation. In 2006, the Southern Oregon Historical Society recognized her service with its Southern Oregon Heritage Award.
Kay was a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church throughout her life in Ashland and at various times served as a member of the vestry, altar guild, choir, and Sunday school instruction team. She counted gardening, reading, pets, and exploratory walks among her joys. Aspects of daily life she most enjoyed revolved around her husband and those she termed her family of friends.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy Kay leaves is the quality and depth of her friendships. When you were in Kay's presence, she was wholly yours. She remembered her last time with you and what was on your mind. If you were troubled she offered you the full benefit of her warmth, compassion, and wisdom. If you were untroubled, she gave you a glad greeting and perhaps a bit of her special humor. If you were a stranger or newcomer in the crowd, she extended her whole true self to you and put you at ease. She saw your goodness and might offer a heartfelt compliment. She would often speak of old friends and the gifts they gave her. A friend recently said, You know, Kay, at my age I don't make deep friendships that easily, but you made it so easy. Kay did all of this in her own understated way, always deflecting notice of her kind and gracious self. Kay was a rare person of unique qualities. All her friends will miss her dearly.
Kay is survived by David, her beloved husband of nearly thirty-two years, and several nieces and nephews. She was preceded in death by her parents and her two brothers, Stoddard Reed Atwood and David Phelan Atwood. She leaves innumerable friends and associates who share her appreciation of Oregon history and remember her with utmost regard and affection. At her request, no formal memorial service was held. A private rite was conducted in accord with her wishes. Remembrances may be made to Jackson County Friends of the Animal Shelter, Ashland Hospice, Friends of the Ashland Public Library, or the Outreach Program of Trinity Episcopal Church in Ashland. A celebration of Kay's life will be held at a later date.