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Polly Ely papers

Identifier: IWA0829

Scope and Contents

The Polly Ely papers date from 1937 to 2008. The papers are arranged in ten series:  Biographical, Correspondence, Education, Organizations: General, Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, Global Cedar Rapids, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Nations, Artifacts, and Audiovisual. The Biographical series (1937-2008) contains material from throughout Ely's life, from swim meet ribbons and items from her time at Mount Holyoke College to her obituary, including a journal and materials from her participation in various organizations. Also included are wall calendars kept by Ely over a 25-year period, as well as a weekly at-a-glance pocket calendar. Many aspects of Ely's life are represented in the Correspondence series (1942-2008): personal and family life, church activities, and the outpouring of sympathy upon her death.  The folder of political correspondence from the 1970s contains responses to letters Polly and John Ely wrote to Iowa congressmen on such varied issues as cuts to social programs, the Indochina War, and President Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. The Education series (1935-2001) is largely comprised of detailed notes Ely took during for her coursework at Mount Holyoke College and beyond. Also in this series are textbooks, college events memorabilia, and alumnae reunion materials. The Organizations: General series (1962-2005) includes material related to the American Red Cross and Women for Peace, as well as resources on arms control and disarmament, including a chronology of events during the critical cold war years of 1961 and 1962. Material concerning Ely's work with RESULTS, a citizens' lobbying organization dedicated to eradicating hunger and poverty, is also included in this series. Completing the series are handbooks, notes, and other resources from workshops Ely attended. The Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission series (1963-2000) contains a history of the group and annual reports, as well as a brief filed on behalf of the complainant in a wrongful termination case centered on the question of whether alcoholism should be considered a disability under Cedar Rapids municipal code. The Global Cedar Rapids series (1989-1995) concerns this charitable and educational organization Polly and John Ely helped found to promote discussion of international affairs and global citizenship. The Unitarian Universalist Association series (1869-2007) contains handwritten notes and other material related to Ely's life as a member and leader of the Unitarian Universalist Peoples Church of Cedar Rapids.  A history of Peoples Church is included. The United Nations series (1966-1995) contains assorted Iowa United Nations Association-related materials, including nationally published booklets on issues such as peace and the status of Native American women, business papers and correspondence, and fundraising campaign information. The Artifacts series (1981-2007) includes awards received by the Elys, among them the 2007 Louise Noun Civil Liberties Award presented by the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. The Audiovisual series (1988-2007) consists for the most part of audio and video recordings relating to RESULTS and the Results Educational Fund. Also included is a recording of the an Easter service at Peoples Church and a 1990 videotape of interviews about the history of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.


  • 1937-2008
  • Other: Date acquired: 2010-07-01


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

Biographical / Historical

Shirley "Polly" Mathews Ward Ely, peace and civil rights activist, was born in 1920 to Nathaniel F. and Grace Mathews Ward of Worcester, Massachusetts. After earning a degree in zoology from Mount Holyoke College in 1941 and doing graduate work at Wellesley College, she married Cedar Rapids native John M. Ely, Jr., in 1942. The couple lived in New York City before settling in Iowa. Polly Ely worked on behalf of numerous causes. She helped to found the first Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, the Iowa Medical Aid Fund, and the Iowa City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She protested the Vietnam War and worked with Women for Peace, was active in Iowans Against the Death Penalty and the United Nations Association, and was a lifetime member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In later years she lobbied for RESULTS, an organization dedicated to ending poverty. A longtime member of Peoples Church Unitarian Universalist (UU) of Cedar Rapids, Polly Ely served in the following capacities over the years: congregation president, director of religious education, and UU church camp chaperone. She was also active in Prairie Star District, the UUA's regional organization. Polly Ely died of breast cancer in 2008.


4.20 linear feet