“I can’t remember the last time that I went to the doctor. I think it was about three years ago. I asked the high school trainer if he would bandage my leg, and he did. That was good. There was only one hole in it. Then it got worse and worse. Then I had a nurse from the Winchester Hospital come to the house. Then another nurse came in. They sort of rotated coming to the house for nine months.”
This was the last time that I would ever speak with Wilmington High School’s beloved track coach and math teacher Frank Kelley. I was officially his biographer by this time, having told the story of this man’s amazing life about five years before this conversation. Now we had decided that it was time to begin working on a second edition of ‘Our Mr. Kelley-A Lifetime Of Coaching And Caring.’ We had many conversations over the course of five years. I still have plenty of tape recordings of me trying to get Mr. Kelley to answer one of my questions without relating those questions to a particular math equation that I would invariably struggle to understand. This is the first time I’ve ever sat down and written about this last conversation with Mr. Kelley. I sat and listened to those tapes for several hours. It wasn’t easy. It was a lot tougher than any math equation that Mr. Kelley could possibly come up with. I realized how much I miss him every day. I’m not alone in those feelings.
The book had become an important part of what kept Mr. Kelley so involved in coaching. I know this because everywhere Mr. Kelley went he would lug a big bag of books. It seemed like he never went anywhere without plenty of copies of ‘Our Mr. Kelley’. Mr. Kelley never quite got the concept of ordering anything over the telephone, much less the internet.
I sat in his living room while Mr. Kelley gingerly positioned himself in his new recliner and his nurse began getting his leg into a contraption that helped to reduce the swelling in his leg. I knew by this time that Mr. Kelley never complained. His survival guide is detailed in the book, with many years spent flat on his back in the Peabody Home for Crippled Children. Now his leg was in bad shape. He was battling various skin cancers, and for the first time he appeared frail, and his memory was not what it was even a few months before this meeting. Somehow I felt that this was the last time that I would see my friend. A few months later he was gone. Wilmington had lost a legend.
Of course Mr. Kelley casually mentioned the oozing hole in his left leg, the result of an edema that had developed inside his shinbone. He had multiple problems with both feet and was making regular trips to a wound clinic and a foot doctor. He told me that day that he was taking nothing stronger than Aleve for pain, and I believed him. The man was a rock, and was still more concerned about how I was preparing for my annual winter sojourn to Fort Lauderdale. He was excited to begin working with me on the second edition of his story. And the story seemed to be rolling along undeterred, with the enthusiasm and lust for life that I had come to expect from a man that I was proud to call my friend. Still, I sensed that I had better make the most of this conversation, and I did just that over the course of an hour while his nurse made sure that he was comfortable and ready for dinner. Mr. Kelley’s meals were being delivered every day, and I remember that this wasn’t Friday, because Mr. Kelley wasn’t complaining about the afternoon’s menu. Friday’s meal was always lasagna with ricotta cheese, and Mr. Kelley hated ricotta cheese.
Mr. Kelley had survived a quadruple bypass in 2003, and his coaching career had by this time come full circle. After retiring from Wilmington High School there were coaching stints in Weston and Reading. Mr. Kelley will always be remembered as a Wildcat. In fact when he passed away that winter, the WHS high school band played the school’s fight song as Mr. Kelley exited Saint Dorothy’s Church one last time.
Even with all his health problems on that day, Mr. Kelley wanted to keep right on talking about what he called “his stories”. And he was firm as always in saying that his health problems were no big deal. “I don’t think that I’ve had many health problems,” he said while his nurse gently put the final touches on caring for his wounded leg.
His neighbors had been looking out for him for many years, plowing his driveway and shoveling his front walk in the winter, getting his mail and eventually helping to remake the inside of his house with a sparkling new “trophy and memory” room in the basement, a new refrigerator and a recliner that he insisted should not be extravagant by any means. There was still no television. Mr. Kelley had his radio and “his stories”. As frail as he was, he was ready to help me get to work on the second edition of the book. Sadly, he died before it was finished. A couple months later I would fly back from Fort Lauderdale for his funeral and a three day celebration of his life in Wilmington.
“My sister told me that she hoped that people realized how much she appreciated all that was being done for me in Wilmington,” he said as I began asking what he wanted to talk about that day. Like most days, he wanted to talk about other people and how much he cared about every single one of them. “I told my sister not to worry, that these people know how thankful I am. I’m very pleased with how much they do for me.”
BACK WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
On this particular day I wanted to talk to Mr. Kelley about what he’d been up to since the book was published back in October of 2010. It turns out he was doing plenty until the winter before we spoke when his health began falling. He began just showing up to watch the track teams practice, and the WHS coaches decided that Mr. Kelley’s expertise in the field events might come in handy. The shot put and discus were Mr. Kelley’s thing. He was known statewide as an expert in teaching field event techniques. Mr. Kelley would observe an athlete throwing the shot put or the discus, ask a coach if it was OK to offer up his two cents, and then get to work coaching. In other words, Mr. Kelley would tell one of “his stories." It all worked out well. Of course there would be so many more stories. Hence the reason for a second edition.
“I might see something that I could help a boy with on his discus throwing,” said Mr. Kelley. “I would give some advice and the coaches began asking me ‘are you coming back tomorrow?’ Then they asked me if I was going to the indoor track banquet. Then they asked me if I was coming to spring track practice?” Four years later the “Coach” was very much back in front of the name Kelley in everyone’s Hall of Fame memory banks. The man wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mr. Kelley always made sure that I knew that he was still traveling with the track teams when his health permitted. Now it appeared that Mr. Kelley was resigned to the fact that his coaching days were finally over. His return to coaching track in Wilmington seemed to be a surprising and rewarding experience. But he knew in his heart that it was over.
“Satisfying is a word that I always use. I hope it’s been satisfying for the kids, because it sure has been satisfying for me,” he said shortly before I said what would be my final goodbye. “That last winter we had was a tough winter to coach. But by the second week of spring I was back coaching outdoors. One of the most satisfying things that I got from this is that when I came to the first practice and got out of Rick Barry’s truck all of the kids came over and hugged me.”
Mr. Kelley was getting picked up for practice every afternoon by one of the coaches like assistant Barry, or maybe one of the discus or shot put throwers would drive him that day and get some field event tips on the short trip to the high school. The coach was loving his return to the days of nothing but Wilmington Wildcat Blue. Mr. Kelley knew in his heart that he had found a way to help young people way beyond his retirement years.
“I told the team that I didn’t know if I could ever coach again,” he said. For the first time ever I saw a look of pain come across Mr. Kelley’s face. But that didn’t mean that I thought for one moment that he would never coach again. I thought that he would somehow find a way. I said goodbye. For the last time.
ONE FINAL CELEBRATION
Mr. Kelley celebrated his 87th birthday on August 19, 2015 at Rocco’s Restaurant in Wilmington. Rocco’s was always Mr. Kelley’s favorite place to dine, and he would go there on many occasions. It didn’t need be a special occasion but when Mr. Kelley made his way slowly through the entrance to Rocco’s, he would instantly make any day special to the many people who would greet him with a smile, a wave and a rousing “Hello Mr. Kelley!”
Frank Kelley died peacefully in his sleep on January 8, 2016, a little more than five years after “Our Mr. Kelley-A Lifetime of Coaching and Caring” was published by the Harvard Book Store. We were a team, although he had taken to calling his life story “The Cooke Book.” It was hardly that. Every time that Mr. Kelley would mention the book to someone over the course of those years, he would smile and give me that “I gotcha” look and call it “The Cooke Book” all over again.
He was ever the kidder, even in the last year of his life when his health was failing. His doctors could never get Mr. Kelley to talk about the pain that he must have been suffering with over that last year. When he was found that day — first by the meals-on-wheels driver, and then by various caring neighbors and emergency personnel — Mr. Kelley was at peace with his maker and his life, for indeed he had lived more than just a good life. Mr. Kelley had lived a great life, for there was no limit to the caring and the love than he gave unconditionally to so many people over the course of his 87 years on this earth.
Mr. Kelley’s rosary beads were found on the floor beside his bed. It’s safe to say that Mr. Kelley went to bed every night of his life praying and clutching those rosary beads. This man of great faith was taken care of by a loving and caring God every step of the way.
On January 8, 2016, Wilmington lost a man who will be remembered forever as a coach and a teacher who made a difference in the lives of thousands of young men and women. Wilmington’s loss was heaven’s big gain that day in January. Heaven was getting a Guardian Angel. If ever there was a man who had earned that First-Class Seat on the Right Hand of God, it was Frank Kelley.
Over the next few weeks, Rock Cooke will be featuring the 1974 and 1975 Class C Champion Boys Outdoor Track-and-Field teams that Mr. Kelley coached, as well as a ‘Where Are They Now’ with former outstanding track and football athlete Bob Reid, who was a key member of the first championship team.