What follows is an updated draft of a speech I gave a few years back as part of Gary Kelley’s induction into the Sandusky Central Catholic Hall of Fame. It was one of the greatest privileges of my lifetime. For those of you who, like me, had the good fortune of being one of his students, nothing that follows will be revelatory. In fact, I’m sure it will be old news that falls far short of capturing the full measure of the impact he had on our lives. For all other readers, I’d encourage you to recall that teacher or mentor who first made you truly believe you were special and far more capable than you ever imagined yourself to be. For Port Clinton grads, think Mrs. Quayle.
I want to thank Mr. Kelley for conferring upon me the honor of speaking at his induction. As his, not former, but forever student, I’m humbled by his faith in me. Although I long ago graduated to calling Mr. Kelley by his first name, to the several thousand students whose hearts and minds he touched, he will always be Mr. Kelley. Therefore, as I stand here as their proxy and attempt to give voice to the gratitude and love we wish to share with him today, I will use that title, which was and still is spoken with reverence and affection.
I knew OF Mr. Kelley long before I actually knew Mr. Kelley. When he was only in his twenties and I was still in elementary school, Gary and Linda used to play cards with my Grandma Benkey and my Great Aunts Else and Tec, who were at least in their seventies at the time. I thought it odd, but you had to know my Grandma and her sisters, and once I came to know the Kelleys, it made perfect sense. They were all east siders, they were all Saints Peter and Paul parishioners, and they all loved people, especially young people, or at least people who were young at heart. I also knew of Mr. Kelley because when I was still in elementary school, I would often hear my high school-aged siblings, cousins, and their friends talk of him as that most confusing of breeds: the cool teacher. Remember, this was the early to mid-1970s, when many of the teachers at St. Mary were still nuns and priests. It was also at a time when the generation gap between teens and adults was wide. Roger Daltry of the Who had not too much earlier defiantly sung, “I hope I die before I get old,” and Jack Weinberg, an activist in San Francisco, said those in the movement “didn’t trust anyone over 30.”
When I entered high school myself, I was surprised to learn that this Mr. Kelley was a longish-haired, mustachioed, bell bottom-wearing, borderline hippie who was also the make-up man for school plays. On the surface, he appeared to be nothing like the male role models I’d known up to that point, all of whom were short on words, long on toughness, and often downright scary. Over time, however, I learned that this make-up man was as tough as and, when necessary, could be just as no nonsense-allowing and even intimidating as the most macho of those others. But those instances were rare. In fact, Mr. Kelley would become the first person I knew to actually model the word “gentle” in gentleman.
When I finally stepped inside his classroom for senior English, I sensed immediately that his room was different than any I’d ever been in: somehow warmer, somehow safer. It was clear that it didn’t matter who your parents were or if you were a star football player or a cheerleader or the class valedictorian or the class stoner or clown, you were going to be treated like everyone else. For those forty-two minutes, in Mr. Kelley’s room, every one of us were one of the cool kids.
Mr. Kelley commanded my respect and attention not by instilling fear but by engaging me intellectually. He fascinated, not frightened me. He taught with a passion that was genuine and incendiary and made me take seriously every word he read or spoke. He made me feel that my thoughts and opinions actually mattered. Whether it was in regards to my behavior or my academic performance, he made me want to please him and never to disappoint him. I began that year in his class as the “too-cool-for-school” kid slouching in the back row, but I ended it on the edge of my seat with this absurd notion of becoming an English major, a teacher, and a writer. Who ever said dreams don’t come true?
Other than my parents and my wife, Mr. Kelley has had more impact on my life than anyone else – not only as I pursued a career in education and a writing avocation, but also as I became a husband, a father, and, a mentor myself to others. When I have been at my best as an adult, I have been the most like Mr. Kelley. It is when I’m channeling the examples he set for me and the wisdom he shared with me that I most like myself and I know I’m getting it right.
After thirty years in Catholic education, Mr. Kelley began a second career as a sales rep., a job from which he only recently retired. Over the past decade, Gary has also immersed himself in his other artistic love: watercolor painting of local landmarks. I point this out because it is another lesson that, I believe, Mr. Kelley is modeling for us all but especially for me. Because, probably like all of his students, I always thought he was talking especially to me. Gary Kelley is no Gary Cooper, you will never watch him ride off into the sunset.
So, if you will humor me, I’d like to close with the final stanza of a poem that Mr. Kelley and I have long shared as one of our favorites. It speaks to his larger-than-life persona and his indomitable spirit. The poem is “Ulysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In the earlier stanzas, Ulysses complains that after living a life of adventure amongst gods and heroes, he has returned to his home in Ithaca and become “an idle king” with little to do but to wait for “that eternal silence.” But here in the final stanza, he determines to set out once more with his men, to “drink life to the lees,” and to live until he dies:
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Gary Kelley – my teacher, my mentor, my friend – is one of the most special of people in my life.
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