Friday, February 20, 2009

Tribute to a real man

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of the Rev. Dr. James Kelly Jr. The name might mean little or nothing to you, but part of the reason I'm writing this is because of him.

In his not quite 79 years of life he was a pastor, civil rights advocate, counselor, college administrator and very much a stand-up guy with the number of degrees he earned approaching double figures, including two doctorates. He ended his active career in 1985 as the dean of the school of education at my college alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh; he was the first African-American to serve in that capacity.

One other thing -- just after that, he married my mother. And that relationship proved good for both of us in the long run.

For openers, after she retired in 1994, they traveled all over the world -- England, Ireland, Thailand, even Africa. During their married life he did all the cooking. He introduced her to his circle of friends, who represented many of the movers and shakers in Pittsburgh of all races, and did quite a bit of entertaining. He took care of her quite well, which was an issue after she left my father due to his alcoholism and abuse. He also readily welcomed my brother and me into the family; he referred to me as his "main man." I don't think he realized that I needed to hear that. Or maybe he did and I didn't realize it.

Yet, from what I could tell, he never took pride in his status; rather, he regularly used his authority to help others, occasionally waiving tuition for students who were having financial problems. I was one of those he helped, pulling strings to get me back in school after I flunked out in 1983. And believe me, I appreciated it -- by the time I finally graduated in 1997 I regularly made the Dean's List. Even though his own health was failing, he was determined to get to the arena to see me wear that cap and gown, and when we got back home that afternoon he had me put on one of his academic robes. (I think he was trying to drop some hints.)

However, it was only after reading John Eldredge's "The Way of the Wild Heart" did I understand his essence. The book refers to the numerous stages of a man's life -- "Beloved Son," "Cowboy/Ranger," "Warrior," "King" and "Sage," and Eldredge mentioned that he had met very, very few sages. I can tell you that "Doc" was one of those, according to the book, because he came across as a man who always knew who he was and what he was about and was willing to share that with others. Eldredge also said that the influence of a sage should increase in his final years; folks are still talking about my stepdad.

Of course we all miss him, and now that he's gone I am more than proud to represent part of his ongoing legacy. Several years ago Mom gave me his Pitt watch as a birthday present, knowing that I would appreciate it.

But the most precious piece of jewelry I own is the ring I wear on the fourth finger of my right hand; at his viewing the former dean of the university's evening school came to pay his respects (he had signed off on the papers allowing me back into school) and I shook his hand -- and then showed it to him. He responded, "None of the people I've helped out has ever left me down!" -- telling him that "Doc" had judged my character correctly. And that's why I appreciate him so much; he believed in me to an extent that he was willing to stake his position to see me go somewhere in life. I would hope that, were I in his shoes, I would do some of the same things.

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