Over past few weeks the world mourned and celebrated the lives of great celebrities such as David Bowie, Natalie Cole, and Alan Rickman. It is right then to add another phenomenal individual to this list.
Francis P. Kelley, Jr. was a long time former teacher and track and field coach at Wilmington High School in Wilmington, MA.
He was also my coach.
I am writing this because I would like to share what I remember about him; and because it will allow me to never forget him.
During the winter of my freshman year at Wilmington High School I made an important decision. I decided that I would go out for winter track. I had always been a soccer player, but not having made the soccer team I made the decision to go out for the track team. I walked down the long hall to a classroom full of loud and rowdy high school boys or in my mind men because that is how the upperclassmen looked to me. Up to that point, my freshman year had been much like Anthony Michael Hall’s experience in the Breakfast Club.
Through all the noise and confusion, a single hand reached out to make me feel welcome. Mr. Kelley. He looked just like he does in the picture above. He was quiet spoken and encouraged me to join the team. I can be honest that if my introduction to track went any other way I may have quit.
Flash forward to my first indoor race. The 2-mile. I felt that I had the endurance, but I had never really trained for this race. I went out too fast, and quickly fell behind. 23 laps (or was it 22.5?), and I had no idea where I was. I just couldn’t finish. Mr. Kelley stood on the sideline. Not yelling, just telling me I could do it. I stopped. It was one of the few races in my life that I quit (with 2 laps to go). I just couldn’t breathe. Mr. Kelley walked over to me. He had to walk because of the tuberculosis he contracted as a child. He put his arm around me and told me to breathe. He never yelled, and he was not disappointed.
Flash forward to later that season. I had finally made friends on the team, and Mr. Kelley took us to the Freshman Track Meet in Lowell, MA. I was able to finish the 2-mile now, and was caught up in the “coolness” of hanging out with the other freshmen. We did what was necessary to finish. No competitive Coach Rufo yet (that is another story). Mr. Kelley had driven us in his own car and we were walking back to drive home. As we all hustled across the street, Mr. Kelley lost his balance, and fell hard landing on his arm. I remember hearing him yell, and turned back to see him lying in the middle of the street. He was hurt, but he didn’t let it show. The ambulance came and he indeed had broken his arm. He chatted pleasantly with the paramedics.
Flash forward to Cross Country Camp held at his cottage on Cape Cod. Mr. Kelley opened his summer home to the team so we could train with the Dennis Yarmouth cross country team. He would cook our team breakfast, as long as we cleaned the dishes. He was honored and invited to the Dennis Yarmouth Cross Country team banquet each year as a guest. I never ran so much in my life, and it definitely prepared me for the miles I would put in the boat over the next 15 years.
Flash forward to numerous cross country meets and track meets in which coaches from all over the country would come and speak to Mr. Kelley. He was easily found wearing his white safari hat. As teenagers, we always gave him a hard time because the hat was definitely not “dope”. Yet coach after coach would walk up and pay homage and respect to Mr. Kelley. He was a staple at all the big meets, and many coaches met him when they were first athletes.
Flash forward to a Spring Track dual meet. Mr. Kelley had retired my junior year of high school, but he would still come and watch the WHS team compete. I distinctly remember one of my teammates running his race. From across the field, Mr. Kelley’s familiar “GOOOooo!” echoed off the grandstands. My teammate immediately straightened up and exploded forward. Race after race, Mr. Kelley’s “GOOOooo” would be heard, and his runners would respond.
Flash forward to late in my senior year. Mr. Kelley’s mother had passed away. It was important that I go to the wake, because he had already influenced my life so much. I was one of the first students to the wake, and I believe I surprised him. I remember he tried to talk to me about his mother, but could not hold his composure. I gave him a big hug.
Flash forward to my high school convocation; it was scholarship night. As student after student walked up with the announcement of each award, it was my name that was called to receive the Frank Kelley Family Scholarship in its 2nd year of existence. Mr. Kelley greeted me at the top of the stage and we embraced. It would help me pay for my first year of tuition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Flash forward to November of 1997, I was a junior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I came home to attend the Wilmington High School versus Tewksbury High School Thanksgiving game. Full of swagger, I just started to come into my own as a rower. I saw Mr. Kelley on the Wilmington sidelines and again gave him a huge hug. I told him about my aspirations to be an elite rower as I had just begun my journey toward 2008.
That was the last time I saw him in person.
Flash forward to the summer of 2009 at the Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River. My Penn AC Gold boys eight won the regatta for the first time since I had moved to Philadelphia. It was my first significant victory as a rowing coach and I experienced a joy I will never forget. I imagine that is why Mr. Kelley coached and taught for as many years as he did.
Flash forward to this evening.
I am 38 years old and still coaching and training clients towards their own personal goals. I make it a point to step inside their shoes, because it allows me to motivate and teach them to believe in themselves. I believe Mr. Kelley stepped into my shoes 15 years ago when I first walked into his classroom.
Who I am? No one famous or important. Just one of hundreds. Just one of thousands.
Yet, Mr. Kelley never made any of us feel less than number one.
Thank you Mr. Kelley.
Patrick H. Rufo attended Wilmington High School from 1991 -1995. He competed at cross country, winter track, and spring track. He attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he rowed for 4 years. He competed at the US Olympic Rowing Trials in the Men’s Open Double in 2008. He has coached rowing and sculling since 2001.