Lee Kelly 1947-2020
A few (or not so few) words to honor Lee Kelly.
I haven't posted anything thus far, as I have struggled to find a way to say this without seeming the least bit self-congratulatory. I promise you, that is NOT my intent. But this is my story, and I hope in it you will see that Lee Kelly is the star.
One of the reasons I at first hesitated to write is because Mr. Kelly was not someone with whom I had any real, meaningful interaction in high school. I was not a part of WNAS and never enjoyed having him as a teacher. My studies and life path in those years was directed toward a college career in the sciences. As such, even though I wanted to find room for WNAS in my schedule, it never worked out. The loss was all mine.
But that didn't mean that Mr. Kelly was unfamiliar to me. I had known his voice for nearly a decade before I entered the halls of NAHS. I recall the snow days of '78 and hearing his voice on the radio with lessons and information. The information was helpful...the lessons, well, let's just say that was an experiment in futility.
He was the voice I associated with New Albany High School basketball. So many games he delivered to me through the radio. New Albany's mascot will forever be the bulldog; but New Albany's voice will always be - for me - Lee Kelly.
In a series of life events and changes, within three years of graduation I found myself working in - of all things - radio! I had moved with my young family to Ft. Myers, FL to work at WAYJ, the original Way-FM.
I started as a volunteer, and I was awful. I still have the air check from that first night in November 1987. I use it from time to time to remind myself of how far I've come - and not to underestimate someone who is determined to pursue a dream.
Within weeks I was hired for overnights. From there I moved to middays and music director. After three more years I was program director and afternoon drive. My technical and science background helped and I became the responsible for the FCC documents of the station. Then I also moved to Program Director. In six years, I had quickly climbed the rungs of the ladder.
In 1993-4, I moved my family back to New Albany. A life and growth in radio would require a somewhat nomadic commitment, one which I was not willing to subject to my family. I moved home and instead started a syndicated radio show with two good friends, a program called Soul2Soul. The show ran from 1994 through the end of 2019 when I finally signed off for the last time in syndication after 25 years. During its peak, the show aired on more than 780 radio stations in 44 countries worldwide along with, at times, nearly global coverage as it was aired on a shortwave station as well. I've received letters and emails from every continent and some unusual places. It was an amazing run.
And even today I am the voice of a radio network (Pure Radio) with stations in a number of markets and growing, including one right here in Louisville.
But perhaps my greatest joy is that I have been calling high school sports first for my company Rival Sports from 2009-2013 and more recently for GLICOD since 2014. I say my greatest joy, because many nights, I would sit in the booth just down the row from Lee Kelly. He was calling games or sometimes just there to observe. Every time I saw him, I immediately felt better. He had a way about him that somehow gave you the ability to feel confident about yourself and your abilities. I have seen that sentiment repeated by others countless times since his passing. Over time we struck up an acquaintance which grew into a casual friendship.
This past year, at a game at Floyd Central, Lee was there to "observe." I was there early to broadcast and after getting everything set up, I had some extra time to chat. It was a rare occasion. It was just he and I. In the course of talking he mentioned that he had heard some of my broadcasts with GLICOD, and that he was impressed and that I was doing a really great job. Even though I am now in my 50s, I felt like a kid all over again. His praise was so uplifting and seemed so genuine.
I responded with gratefulness to his kindness and shared most all of my story with him, much of which I shared above. And after I finished with my verbal CV, I told him the following: that part of what drove my desire to be in radio could be traced back to listening to him as a young boy calling games for the high school. And I told him that while I was not a WNAS alumnus, I did hope that he would accept my gratitude for all he had done to inspire and encourage me, if only from a distance. Whether he knew it or not, he played a huge role in my life. He looked at me as if he was somewhat shocked and confessed, he had no idea of my story and that he was very proud of what I had accomplished. Then after a moment of adult male awkwardness, he made a wonderfully self-deprecating comment to break the charged atmosphere and return the moment to normalcy.
As it turns out, that was the last time I saw him and the last time we spoke.
I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I was given the chance to tell him how much he meant to me. I know it was a gift from above.
What amazes me as well is how many NAHS students have gone on to successful broadcast careers in one form or another. My story is not unique. I have seen so many tributes from people on Facebook who are now professionals both locally and places far and wide who were inspired, trained, mentored, coached and encouraged by Lee Kelly. It is probably impossible this side of heaven to calculate the number of people touched in this world by someone who was first touched by him.
I grieve his loss and send my deepest sympathies to his family. And, I know the first ball game I cover this fall, I will look over and he won't be there. You won't hear it in my voice, but I promise you, there will be a tear in my eye. I'll hide it well, tough. I'm a professional, after all. And I learned from listening to one of the best.
God bless you, Mr. Kelly. It was an honor sharing the booth with you.