My family moved to Tennessee in 1974 and one of the first names I heard, as it pertained to movers and shakers in this area, was Dale Kelley. He was our state representative at the time, if I remember correctly.
I hadn’t met him yet and didn’t really know him, but he was on the express lane to getting things done in these parts.
He had quite a resume. He was a state representative, a county commissioner, a respected basketball official, a commissioner in Lamar Alexander’s cabinet and mayor of Huntingdon. I never saw him do it, but he probably sold popcorn at the local sporting events, too. He was into everything positive about Carroll County and West Tennessee.
He’s the guy that got the ball rolling on the road system here in West Tennessee. You might have seen him calling fouls at a high school basketball games. A couple of days later, you might have seen him on national television calling a high-profile college game.
My dad was a Duke University grad and a big fan of the Blue Devils. He was jazzed during the 1978 season when Duke made its run to the Final Four. On that Saturday afternoon, Duke played Notre Dame in the semifinals. When it was disclosed that Kelley was going to officiate that game, my dad was elated. It was a real treat to see him in action.
When Kelley was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, I called Voice-of-the-Vols John Ward for comment. Said Ward, in his inimitable fashion: “Did he ever make a bad call? Yes…he did. But he made a lot more good calls than bad.” Ward followed with a chuckle. He liked Kelley.
I remember that same year, in the summer, I got involved in a youth group for a gubernatorial campaign. When the candidate I worked for lost, I was recruited to join Alexander’s campaign. I was asked to make a presentation to the local Republicans at the county courthouse. When I arrived, I was told Kelley was going to be there.
I was fine until that moment.
When I was asked to speak, there he was, off to the side, listening attentively to me, extolling the virtues of a youth campaign. I didn’t talk long. Frankly, I wondered what in the world I was doing there to being with. After the meeting ended, Kelley shook my hand and talked to me like a peer, asked some provocative questions about my ideas and was as genuine as a person could be.
I’ll never forget that. When I got involved with media, he always had time for me. If I had a question, needed an interview, an on-air guest, whatever the case, he always was accessible. When he watched his grandkids play ball at McKenzie, he always sought me out and spoke.
He didn’t have to do that. But that was the kind of guy he was.
I could go through his career, chapter and verse, but you’ll see, hear and read more about him from sources who were closer to him, about his legacy.
Kelley passed away Saturday, Aug. 20 at the age of 82. He helped bring progress and acclaim to West Tennessee, whether in business, politics or athletics. He was a good man and I’ll miss him. I’ll miss his stories about Bobby Knight and Ray Mears. I’ll miss our conversations. I’ll miss his warmth as a human being who cared about his community.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox radio show, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on WRJB, 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.