This afternoon, I had the honor of introducing Mr. Gary Kelley for induction into Sandusky Central Catholic’s Hall of Fame. Below is an abridged version of my speech.
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 Gary, 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 as I eventually came to know the Kelleys, it made perfect sense. They were all east enders, 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 occasions were rare. In fact, Mr. Kelley would become the first person I knew to actually model the word “gentle” in gentleman and to teach me that I could love sports and the arts and humanities.
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.
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’s 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.
For those who are unaware, after his thirty years in Catholic education, Mr. Kelley began a second career as a sales rep. A job he continues to this day with no plan of retirement on the horizon. He has also immersed himself in his other artistic love: watercolor painting of local landmarks, including a recent one of the Jefferson Street entrance of the high school. I point this out because it is another lesson that, I believe, Mr. Kelley is modeling for us all but especially for me: to never stop seeking new challenges and to live until I die. 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. This spirit is exemplified in the poem “Ulysses,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a poem that Mr. Kelley and I have long shared as one of our favorites. 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 in the final line, he determines to set out once more with his men and “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
It is one of the greatest honors of my lifetime to present Mr. Gary Kelley, my Ulysses, for induction into the Sandusky Central Catholic Hall of Fame.