Person of the Year: Dick Kelley
He Educated Student-Athletes For Two Decades. Now, His Fight With ALS Has Made Him An Inspiration.
Published: Thursday, May 2, 2013
Updated: Thursday, May 2, 2013 02:05
A little girl runs into the room beaming with joy. She’s just seen a towering star.
“We just saw Ryan Anderson,” she exclaims. “He’s so tall.”
Dick Kelley turns his head, and as Anderson walks through the door followed by fellow Boston College basketball players Lonnie Jackson and John Cain Carney, Kelley lights up brighter than his starstruck niece. He can’t get up from his place on the couch to say hello, so they all come around and pat him on the shoulder. Before they can get comfortable, Kelley directs them to the pizza in the kitchen by nudging his head, ordering them to eat.
Kelley, a sports information director for men’s basketball at BC, was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2011, when a sore wrist spiraled into something much worse. Since then, the disease has steadily progressed, and he now has very limited mobility, virtually no ability to speak, no use of his arms, and can only walk with great asisstance. A Dynavox computer, which he can control with a metallic dot on his glasses, allows him to send emails and tweets. He relies on others for almost everything, but they still rely on him too, for guidance and for strength.
Anderson is one of a group of players who regularly makes the 12-minute walk or five-minute bus ride to Kelley’s apartment near campus. BC helped Kelley move into 2000 Commonwealth Ave. when he could no longer get around the stairs at his condo, and it’s helped him remain an active member of the community. Anderson used to visit Kelley in his office on the third floor of Conte Forum every two weeks. When Anderson’s class first arrived two summers ago, Kelley was completely healthy. He took the first picture of the group as freshmen.
“There’s always the thing that you don’t want bad things to happen to good people,” Anderson said. “Because he’s such a good guy and the energy and the happiness that I saw in his eyes when we first came to BC—it’s just crazy to see his progression since I’ve been here.”
Now Anderson, along with plenty of other friends, family, colleagues, and athletes, join Kelley for dinner or a visit every month or two.
“He’s been such a tremendous role model for me,” Anderson said. “If I had to say someone that’s impacted me the most since I’ve been at BC, it’s definitely Dick Kelley.”
One of the first words that the people close to him use to describe Kelley is blunt. He’ll say what’s on his mind, and if you’re doing something wrong, he’ll call you out for it.
“He’s straight to the point, and with these guys I think they appreciate that,” said men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue. “Things like ‘You didn’t do that right, this isn’t how you say that, here’s how you act.’”
For Kelley, it’s the only way he knows.
“Blunt and direct is one way of saying it,” Kelley wrote in an email interview. “Honest is another. I can’t think of a better way. I believe people know when you’re less than honest. Our athletes are smart. If I were ever tempted to BS them, I’m sure they would see right through it. They would—and should—lose respect for me. I think they appreciate getting it straight.”
Whenever Donahue has needed encouragement during his three years at BC, he’s been able to rely on Kelley, who has worked for the athletic department for more than two decades.
“He’s someone I could go to and reinforce the things that I was thinking and the vision I had,” Donahue said. “And him coming in and telling me, ‘You’re doing it right. You’re doing it the right way. Continue to bring in these types of kids. It’s what Boston College needs.’ It was just great for me. He wasn’t looking for anything in return, he was just being Dick Kelley and helping in any way he can.”
Kelley’s way of helping has rarely involved the basketball court. He’s seen his role in media relations as an opportunity to advise and teach.
“Athletes have coaches who instruct them on the game,” Kelley said. “They don’t need me weighing in on their play or rehashing the recent games. I hope to engage them in non-sports talk. I take an interest in their lives away from the athletic arena. I have other interests and so do they.”
“He’s always very honest and candid with everyone,” said Chris Cameron, director of media relations. “I saw it every day. His motto was ‘Positive and Humble.’ He would always give that advice to student-athletes before they would do an interview.”
When he was a student at BC, Kelley gained respect for the people that took an interest in him and helped him grow. In the early 1990s, Kelley taught a newswriting class, and both of his parents were educators. His mother taught elementary school in Andover, their hometown, and his father taught middle school in Lowell.
“What can I help you with in your life?” Anderson said Kelley would ask him. “How can I help you grow as a man? How can I help you become a complete person?”