She has lived long enough to have vague memories of a world devastated by the Spanish flu, which killed 50 million people and 675,000 in the United States. She remembers dancing in the streets of her small Iowa hometown during a parade, celebrating the return of American soldiers from World War I.
Frances Bartlett Kinne, who turns 103 on May 23, has persevered through some harrowing experiences. She recalls tough times with remarkable clarity and detail, speaking more like a teacher giving a history lesson than a victim of misfortune.
But nothing in her lifetime quite compares to what Kinne, an honorary staff member at Mayo Clinic, is witnessing now. All the social distancing — and the speed with which so many American businesses have shut down due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus — makes her wish she was physically able to do more to assist those in need.
“When you get to be this age, you’re a little more philosophical because you’re thinking about others, not yourself,” Kinne said in a phone interview from her Fleet Landing home in Atlantic Beach. “Because I’m so close to Mayo, I hear so much of people with [coronavirus] problems.
“It’s a gift for me to live right now. I want to be able to help people. The only difference from the past is I haven’t been able to be physically involved.”
The plight of COVID-19 resonates with Kinne, if for no other reason than being well acquainted with so many different kinds of hardship in over a century of living.
From constantly eating peanut butter sandwiches in her college dorm during The Great Depression, to being forced to flee China on a ship without her first husband due to mounting Communist tensions for Americans after World War II, Kinne has seen her share of adverse circumstances.
“The stress wasn’t just for me, it’s everybody,” Kinne said. “I think how lucky I was. When these things come, it does shake you. When you go through things like that, sometimes you’re not sure you’re going to make it.”
Kinne, who served as president of Jacksonville University (1979-89) during a 36-year career there as an educator, stays busy despite the solitude of living alone in her 2,500-square foot house.
She rarely watches television. Kinne is often on the phone with friends, corresponding via email, and assisting former JU students who contact her several times a day to chat or request advice.
Since going into isolation a month ago due to COVID-19, Kinne has spent more time playing music on a Steinway piano she acquired in Germany 65 years ago. She mostly plays commonly-known songs or the pop variety, not as much classical as she once did. Putting her hands on a keyboard is something Kinne has done since her mother Bertha Bartlett (who lived to be 100) began teaching her at age 2.
“I can’t go out and nobody can come in, so [playing the piano] is great,” Kinne said. “I’m not doing everything I want to do, but enough to make me happy.
“I’m on the phone so much now, I’ve lost a little bit of my singing voice.”
NOTHING BUT PEANUT BUTTER
Kinne’s ability to remain calm during times of high anxiety was a trait she learned early, fostered by her parents’ emphasis on education and her own penchant to seek adventure.
Her father, Charles Bartlett, owned and edited the Story City Herald, Kinne’s hometown newspaper in Iowa. Charles and Bertha were instrumental in starting the Story City library, which bears her mother’s name.
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“My mother was a librarian for 40 years, that’s where they baby-sat me,” said Kinne. “I grew up completely in the library. I knew how to name the books when I was 5 years old.
“I taught people how to open a new book. You have to be careful how you do it. If you do it a certain way, it helps preserve them.”
Kinne — born six days before President John F. Kennedy — was 12 when the stock market crashed in October, 1929, triggering the Great Depression that lasted a full decade. One of Jacksonville’s most well-known centenarians got through it with an upbeat attitude, as well as pursuing her passion for music and English literature.
Before finishing high school, Kinne earned money working at a grocery store across the street from the family apartment, which was above the newspaper printing office. Next to the grocery store was a theater, where Fran sang and danced while her mother played the piano.
Shortly after her 16th birthday, Kinne was advanced enough academically to attend Iowa State Teachers College. She stayed two years before transferring to her dream destination of Drake University, where Paul Stoye, a renowned pianist and composer, served on the faculty.
Though she graduated from Drake, it was Kinne’s first year at ISTC that proved to be the most challenging. Away from home for the first time, with the country in its biggest economic downturn in history, Kinne — who earned 35 cents an hour working in the library — got an impactful lesson on what it meant to struggle.
“I remember one Sunday night when I was in college and we had nothing to eat,” Kinne said. “My roommate didn’t have any money either. Each of us kept a loaf of bread under the bed and kept peanut butter by the window. For six weeks, that’s all I had to eat. We couldn’t afford to eat in the dining hall.”
Kinne didn’t dare tell her parents of her plight, knowing they faced economically challenging circumstances back in Story City. Then one day, she learned an old piano on campus was being thrown out, so she asked a couple custodial workers if they could move it into the student center.
As a teenager, the personable Kinne had no reservations about asking the dining hall manager if she could play music while students were eating. In exchange, Kinne was allowed to partake of the food after playing.
“That’s how I ate for two years,” Kinne said. “The amazing thing to this day is I still like peanut butter.”
FINDING HER WAY
Kinne, a long-time community activist, did her part in World War II, serving as head Army hostess at Camp Crowder in southwest Missouri for 70,000 GIs.
But it was her post-war life where her most nerve-wracking adventures took place. It started, ironically enough, in 1949 in Hankou, China, a city that eventually merged with two others to become the modern-day Wuhan, original site of the coronavirus.
After marrying her first husband, Harry L. Kinne, a colonel in the U.S. Army in 1948, the couple lived in Shanghai before his transfer to Hankou. But when the Communists arrived there the following year, amidst political tensions with the U.S., it was decided it’d be in Fran’s best interest to leave immediately.
“I was one of 30 Americans to escape,” Kinne said. “We had to get out of there because wars were going on all around us.”
The problem is, she didn’t have control over the escape plan and Harry couldn’t accompany her. Frances was put alone on a ship to a then unknown destination. She only got to speak to her husband twice while apart for a month.
“I didn’t know where they were taking me,” Kinne said. “Harry was in a military unit at the time. They put me in a ship down on the E deck and I was all alone. I have no idea where I am.
“We ended up in this place high up in a downtown building in Yokohama [Japan]. All the women were in a big room. I asked when I would hear from my husband. I was told it’d be another month.”
The couple finally reunited in Tokyo, then stayed together at the Imperial Hotel downtown for three years. Kinne started an English program at Tsuda University, including to a class of Japanese policemen. She also worked for the U.S. Army as entertainment director for American troops, similar to her job at Camp Crowder. But the constant upheaval and language barrier made it difficult for Kinne to pursue what she really wanted: a doctorate degree.
They returned to the U.S. from Japan for six months, only to have Harry transferred again out to Germany. There, Kinne needed four grueling years to become the first American woman in 1957 to attain a doctorate (in music, English literature and philosophy) at the University of Frankfurt. That distinction prompted the New York Times to do a story about her achievement.
“It took me a long time to get that doctorate, one of the hardest things I ever did,” said Kinne. “I was the only American there and I felt bad because they didn’t like me. I wasn’t accepted when I first tried to register into the University of Frankfurt. Harry said, ‘You got to be more careful about going there in a car and wearing bright colors.’
“So I changed the way I dressed and took more of an attitude of trying to be helpful. It was an amazing change. Once they felt I was a part of them, they were so nice to me.”
Before leaving Germany, the country’s Army Third Division ended up making Kinne an honorary member.
LUCKY TO BE ALIVE
Kinne’s life has been nothing short of extraordinary. With her exuberant, outgoing personality, she managed to accumulate friends and made legendary connections that spanned the globe during her JU career.
From Saudi Arabian princes to U.S. presidents, to General Douglas MacArthur and Winston Churchill’s grandson, to Arthur Fiedler and Steve Forbes, to Charlton Heston and New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to syndicated columnists Ann Landers and Abigail VanBuren, to an assortment of entertainment giants — plus being married to two Army colonels, her second husband was Marcello Worthington “Wordy” Bordley Jr. — Kinne was one of the most influential women of her time.
In 1972 she brought longtime friend Bob Hope and another American comic icon, Jack Benny, together on the JU campus to receive honorary doctorates. It was the only time the pair had ever been together. When a photo was taken of Hope and Benny kissing Kinne on the cheeks, that picture donned the cover of Kinne’s 2000 biography — “Iowa Girl: The President Wears a Skirt.”
She had a gift for engaging people and uniting them for a common cause. Kinne also became a mentor to hundreds of JU graduates, something that continues to this day. She is a ferocious advocate of education through both reading and encouraging people to understand different cultures.
But above all, through a lifetime that has brought her both joy and trials, Kinne remains the ultimate patriot. She loathes political division that has become more common in modern-day America, wishing that more people would appreciate the advantages of living in the United States.
“I’m very concerned [about the coronavirus], but I don’t want anybody arguing over it,” Kinne said. “Some things can be good to take sides when [debate] is constructive. But if you make fun of it or get into political division with something that’s dangerous for the world, that’s worrisome to me. I can’t stand all the arguing, and maybe it’s because of having been through wars and lost people I knew.
“Having lived in all these countries, I recognize what we have and how fortunate we are. I feel lucky to be alive at my age. I love America. I love what we have. Each time I came home from another country, I know we are so blessed.”
Physically, very little about Kinne suggests she’s in her 11th decade of life. Though her left leg makes walking difficult, the 5-foot-4 centenarian still manages to get around with a cane. She broke a couple ribs in 2018 while trying to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, but otherwise remains relatively healthy.
Until age 100, she was still driving a car and delivering commencement addresses at colleges, saying: “I think it’s because none of my speeches lasted longer than 12 minutes.”
What certainly hasn’t diminished with age is her enthusiasm for life and people interaction. Despite being confined to her home and seeing hardly anyone in recent weeks, Kinne’s unrelenting optimism sees a point of light amidst all the COVID-19 turmoil. Remarkably, she knows nobody personally or at Fleet Landing who has tested positive for the virus.
“We’re so fortunate compared to what we were experiencing in my time,” Kinne said. “We’ve got to take advantage and realize how fortunate we really are. We’ve been spoiled.
“I can’t explain it enough, but there’s some joy in all this hardship. There’s an understanding and feeling for others, a pulling together that is very admirable. That’s joyful to me. Everybody working together, this is the way it ought to be. There’s a nobility that can be reached.”
Like her mother, the first woman in Iowa to fill out a voter ballot, Kinne has been a trailblazer in her own right. She was the first female president of a college in Florida, preceded by being JU’s Dean of Fine Arts, the first woman in the country to hold the position of dean. She was also the first female member of the Jacksonville Rotary and River Club.
“I really had fun because I loved kids,” said Kinne. “I think that’s why they keep track of me now.”
In nearly 103 years of Frances Barlett Kinne’s purpose-driven life, maybe this self-revelation about her mindset sums it up best: “My favorite word has always been persistence.”
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