The closest I ever came to meeting Mr. Wiltha Kelley in person was delivering hay to his barn a couple of times. By then he had long since retired from teaching agriculture and shop class at Vincent High School. My dad introduced me to Mr. Kelley by recalling his experiences as a student in his class. Even today I feel the influence of Mr. Kelley, a man I only knew by his picture in my parent’s high school yearbook and the power of story telling.
I do not know for sure if Mr. Kelley began his teaching career before or after the integration of the Alabama public school system in the late 60s or early 70s-I think it was around 1970; but I do feel that providence placed Mr. Kelley in the Ag. Shop at Vincent at the right time. He demanded respect from all of his students. The high regard that my dad had for Mr. Kelley is a testament that he not only demanded, but received that respect.
There are only a few accounts that I can recall, but they deserve to remembered. The stories stand for themselves, you can read into them what you may.
Mr. Kelley did not tolerate nonsense.
“My name is W. R. Kelley.” He would introduce himself at the beginning of each school year pronouncing the R as Are-uh. I do hope you know someone that pronounces their R’s in this manner.
There was a student who by description probably had cerebral palsy. His motor skills were undeveloped and he was given to spasms. In the cruelty of humanity, another boy took to poking him with a pin, in Mr. Kelly’s class of all places. The spastic child would react and moan at each offense much to the pleasure of the other kid. Fortunately Mr. Kelly caught the boy in the act.
“Get up here in front of the class.” Mr. Kelley said as he snatched the pin from the hand of the boy. Mr. Kelley poked the bully repeatedly in front of the class.
“Laugh ______! You thought it was funny a minute ago!”
Dad used to tell this story and laugh. I suppose on the surface it is a pretty funny story. But it really happened. I doubt a teacher could get away with such creative disciplinary action today. It seems that Mr. Kelley was not merely interested in imparting the knowledge and skills necessary to meet the requirements of his curriculum, but that they also became good citizens, and more importantly men. I do not merely suppose that a lack of this kind influence in the public school system-and its critical support by the administration and in the home-has been extremely detrimental to society, I am certain of it.
When report cards were issued, Mr. Kelley would require each student to present his report card in front of the class.
“What’s this baby?” Mr. Kelley was well aware that it really messed with some of the boys to be called baby.
“F in English? What language do you speak?” He would ask.
“English.” The failing student would reply.
“Now how you do you plan on communicating if you fail English? You going to learn French?”
“I see you got an A in P.E. Though.” He would reply.
“That’s cause all you know how to do is play. You better start practicing this motion right here.” He would hold out an imaginary spatula and began flipping burgers. “This is what you are training to do.”
Woe to the student caught hugging a girl in the halls between classes. “Have you bought a gallon of milk lately? How much are diapers these days?”
My Uncle Jason recalls a time when he was digging a splinter out of his finger with a pocket knife beneath his desk while Mr. Kelley stood at the blackboard teaching.
“Mr. Kelley! Wells has got a knife!” A classmate interrupted the lecture.
Without turning around, Mr. Kelley reached in his pocket and retrieved a pocket knife. “So have I.” He said as he held the knife aloft, a little annoyed at the distraction from the lesson.
When the bell rang Mr. Kelley said to Uncle Jason prvately. “Wells, keep that knife out of sight. Some of these children ain’t used to seeing tools and don’t know understand how to use them.”
My dad was disappointed that Mr. Kelley retired before Zach had a chance to be in his class. “I been looking at the numbers and I’m losing money if I keep on teaching. I’m going to retire. I ain’t putting up with these childrens no more.”
Mr. Gibson ended up replacing Mr. Kelley as the Ag/Shop teacher. Like Mr. Kelley, he was the ad hoc disciplinarian of the school. If you got in trouble you could be sent to Mr. Gibson for punishment. He would make you hold a paint can or a hammer straight out in front of you with your arms parallel with the ground.
It seemed like Mr. Kelley died suddenly. I remember dad being upset. We kept the obituary on the refrigerator for a long time. More than likely it is probably still tucked away in a yearbook somewhere to be discovered by another batch of Wells kids. There are few individuals whose character and integrity cause them to live on from generation to generation in anecdotes and stories. They eventually become legends. Such was, or is, Mr. Wiltha R. Kelley.