There is something special about having Languages department member Bill Kelley ’62 as your Spanish teacher. And it’s probably not obvious to most students, at least initially. Sure, you notice the bright and clean classroom, the organized worksheets and notes, and the friendly man offering clear, engaging instruction.
What you probably miss, however, is the time he has spent to be the best teacher he can be for each one of his students. What you might not realize is that Mr. Kelley is one of the best teachers you could ever have.
Mr. Kelley feels like one of those teachers who has been at Saint Ignatius for 50 years, even though it’s only been 25. That’s probably in part due to the fact that he has crammed 50 years worth of work into his time teaching at his Alma Mater. His colleague, Spanish teacher Sara Sebring, knows this firsthand.
“It’s an ongoing joke that anytime I’m here, he’s here,” she says. “If I try to show up on Saturday mornings, he’s here. If I come in Sunday evenings, he’s here. If there’s ever a time for me to get here, and he’s not here, I give him a hard time about it.”
Indeed, Kelley’s black Volkswagen Beetle is often parked in the Breen or chapel lots early on weekday mornings, or throughout weekends. The lights in Main Building Room 315 are some of the first on and last off throughout the school year.
“It’s because he is always working for the kids,” Sebring says. “He is the most organized, color-coded, concise teacher that there could possibly be.
“Aside from that, the kids will tell you that he is the most caring guy, so not only do they appreciate how effective he is in delivering the material, but the fact that he does it with a hug and a smile is just why you never hear a kid say a bad thing about him.”
Certainly, Kelley’s legacy as an incredible Spanish teacher speaks for itself, but his impact on Saint Ignatius High School is amplified by his dedication to the Student Senate, which he moderated for more than two decades.
Student Senate co-moderator Joe Popelka ’84 has worked alongside Kelley in leading the organization and considers Kelley a mentor.
“Bill is the model to the faculty and to his students of what a Graduate-at-Graduation should look like—he excels at all five parts of the Grad-at-Grad. I know by watching him do so many little things so well, without complaint and without looking for the spotlight, he has been an excellent role model for me as an educator.”
A long list of awards and accolades are given to teachers at Saint Ignatius, and Bill Kelley has earned pretty much every single one: the Sullivan Award (2001), the Schroer Award (2003), the Lavelle Award (2005), the Welsh Award (2012), and the Rossing Award—effectively the Saint Ignatius teachers hall of fame—in 2017. He also received the school’s highest honor, the Magis Award, in 2019.
No doubt Kelley’s path back to Saint Ignatius helped prepare him to be among the best teachers in the school’s history. He attended the University of Notre Dame for college and then became a Peace Corps volunteer. This idea of living a life of service to others, Popelka says, is what has shaped and energized his friend’s entire career.
Prior to being hired at Saint Ignatius in 1997, Kelley became a legend at Cleveland Central Catholic. Before he knew Kelley, Popelka says he was encouraged to shadow him and observe how he ran student organizations at CCC, so he did.
“My recollection of that day centers not on my interaction with Bill specifically, but the universal adoration/respect/awe that Bill brought forth from the administrators/teachers/staff/students in that building,” Popelka says. “He had definitively touched each person with his leadership, his wisdom, and his compassion.”
That admiration and adoration has continued unabated since Kelley became a Saint Ignatius teacher. Alumni always stop by his classroom to say hi, and former Student Senate members regularly talk about what they learned in leadership, organization and service from their moderator.
Indeed that spirit of service emanating from his Peace Corps experience also moved Kelley to lead summer mission trips to Central and South America for decades. His meticulously planned excursions almost always had a waiting list because students knew they would receive a valuable experience led by a trusted and caring teacher.
Even as his retirement kicks off following 53 years in education, Kelley continues his tradition of facilitating junior family conferences, helping students and families take stock of their Saint Ignatius experience, evaluate it, and create a plan for that student’s final two years on campus.
Once again—he’s always here.
“It’s just because he has this want to do right by the kids,” Sebring says. “Is that not what we embrace at Saint Ignatius, is to just be the best version of you for other people? That’s it. That’s Bill Kelley.”
by Connor Walters '09
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