For some reason Kelley has been coming up a lot lately. I mean he’s always there, although he died in 1968 he’s always been with me, it’s just that he’s been coming up in conversation. People I’ve run into around town, talking on the phone, at the football game Friday night, it just seems that everywhere I’ve gone in the last week Kelley or something to do with the old Y has come up. 1968. That’s 47 years ago that he died and he’s still such a part of the fabric of the Athens community.
I think it started last Thursday. I went out to hear some music and ran into Mike Crawford. While Mike and I were talking, an acquaintance of mine walked up. I introduced her to Mike and we were standing around making small talk and Mike or I said something, I don’t remember what but something to do with Athens in the ’60’s and the young lady asked how long Mike and I had known each other. There was no more than a second’s hesitation and Mike and I both simultaneously answered her “well, I started the Y in the first grade.”
We looked at each other and smiled. First grade was a long time ago. But we had been friends that long. Y friends. For six or seven years we played games, went to camp, traveled the bus, went to Bible study, learned and received guidance from Kelley.
I didn’t truly appreciate what we had at the Athens YMCA until I started college. I knew that Y’s were everywhere, I didn’t realize how special ours was. I knew I loved Kelley but I didn’t realize what an extraordinary person he was until after he died.
Didn’t the youth director at every Y load up a bus with 25 or 30 kids and take off across the country.
When I was nine years old, I went to California on a bus with Kelley and 30 of my closest friends. We saw Yellowstone Park in all of its’ glory. I remember we had a snowball fight in June and a day later we were caught in a sandstorm in Idaho. I can still picture in my mind those dark clouds of dust rolling towards us, but it wasn’t frightening, because Kelley was there. Frightening came a couple of days later when I was separated from everybody else in a museum in San Francisco. I looked around and didn’t see anybody I knew and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that I was going to spend the rest of my life in Frisco, never to see Georgia and my family again. Needless to say it wasn’t long before Kelley tracked me down. I ran to him crying with relief and he felt so bad for me that I didn’t even get the usual red bottom that was handed out to anyone who wondered off from the rest of the group.
We visited Disneyland, the Grand Canyon and saw a bullfight in Juarez. There was the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert. Rattlesnakes and tumbleweed. I saw lot of things that I had never even heard of before. We must have gone through at least 20 states and Kelley brought us all home. He didn’t lose anybody.
I went back to California with Kelley two more times, Canada once, and Florida a couple of times. Every summer I went somewhere with the Y.
I saw the Algonquin Park and the red coated Mounties in Montreal. I walked through the concrete canyons of New York City and stood on the steps of our nation’s capital to have my picture taken with Congressman Stephens, Kelley, and another 30 of my best friends.
I had another frightening moment on the California trip the summer after the fifth grade.
We were in the desert in New Mexico, the day after leaving the Grand Canyon. It was getting late in the afternoon and Kelley stopped the bus and went into a service station. He came out a few minutes later and said that he had found us a place to camp. A few miles down the road he stopped the bus, but before opening the door he stood and talked to us. He said that this place used to be a popular campground until a couple of years before when some campers had been murdered while camping out there. He said that he wasn’t worried but he wanted everybody to stay close to camp.
We got out and the place was spooky. There was a dried up riverbed and tumbleweeds were blowing in the warm breeze. We built a huge campfire and everybody had their sleeping bags in a circle around the roaring fire. In the middle of the night I woke up and I was sitting on my seat in the bus. I sat for a minute, frozen to my seat. Then I got up, opened the door of the bus and stumbled back to my sleeping bag where I laid awake the rest of the night. As soon as Kelley got out of his sleeping bag the next morning I got up and ran to him, telling him breathlessly about what had happened to me. He chuckled and said that it was nothing to worry about I had just been walking in my sleep. He then told me that he had seen me walking the night before and that he had just turned me around and I’d gone back to my sleeping bag.
I didn’t bat an eye. I’d just been walking in my sleep. I’d done it the night before at the Grand Canyon, but Kelley said that it was nothing to worry about so I didn’t. As far as I know I haven’t walked in my sleep since so, as always, Kelley was right.
The Y was of course so much more than the incredible trips that we got to go on.
There was Pinetops Camp right here in Athens and most importantly there was the everyday Y that we went to after school nine months of the year.
We learned sports. Kelley taught us how to play games to win, but more importantly he taught us to cross the field after we’d lost, shake our opponent’s hand and tell him he’d played a good game. People like to give a lot of lip service these days to playing the game right, but if you played for Cobern Kelley you hustled and showed sportsmanship 100% of the time or you found yourself not only on the bench, but in the red bottom club.
Kelley taught us not only to play the games right, but to live our lives right. We had Bible study every day. We sung songs, played ukuleles, and learned lessons often from our Good Thought Notebooks which we compiled over the course of the year. “You can’t help a man up the hill without getting closer to the top” “It’s better to wear out than to rust out” “Bad language is not used in heaven or on the way there” “A winner never quits, a quitter never wins” “The best helping hand you’ll ever find is at the end of your arm” “If you have God as your partner you can make your plans today and for the future BIG, because YOU and HE together make a powerful team” “If a task is once begun, never leave it till it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.”
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have Cobern Kelley and the Athens YMCA in our youth share a bond which lasts a lifetime. We aren’t just friends. We’re Y friends.