Some teachers transform their students’ lives. Bill Kelley is one of them. After 27 years at Cleveland Central Catholic High School, in 1997 Bill returned to his Alma Mater, Saint Ignatius High School. He teaches Spanish, is the Student Senate moderator, chaperones global mission trips and has influenced the lives of generations of students. Bill believes that “teaching is the meeting of two minds” and his first priority is building positive relationships with students.
Bill grew up in Cleveland Heights where he attended St. Louis parish school. At Saint Ignatius High School, he was involved in many activities, including plays, speech, The Eye newspaper, and was the Wildcat mascot. He studied Latin and Greek but had no exposure to Spanish until he attended the University of Notre Dame, where he met professors who would change the course of his life.
“I grew up in the late 1950s and early 60s, part of an idealistic generation,” reflects Bill. “I wanted to join the Peace Corps in South America. One of my Spanish professors was the first director of the Peace Corps in Chile and my International Studies professor had worked for the U.S. State Department – so I applied and became a volunteer in southern Chile. I worked with the Mapuche people for two and a half years. It was the peak experience of my life. Period. It set me on a very definite path.”
Bill still embraces that experience, sharing mementoes, slideshows, and stories that have inspired many of his own students, including Tom Gill ’01, President of Cleveland’s Urban Community School. Tom credits Mr. Kelley with his decision to major in Spanish and International Studies and then travel to and serve in Ecuador, Spain and El Salvador. Bill recently met with another former student, now in dental school, who was inspired to study Spanish in college and serve indigenous people in Machu Picchu. “That’s the joy of teaching,” says Bill. “You don’t know how you impact kids.”
Bill describes his experiences outside the classroom as “totally enriching my teaching in every way.” As Student Senate moderator, he thrives on getting to know eager, energetic students who work with him “shoulder-to-shoulder” planning events in a student-driven organization. He sees his role as “helping them think things through and pull them off.”
Since 2001, Bill has chaperoned Saint Ignatius mission trips every summer to locations that include El Salvador, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Mexican border. “It’s truly life-changing—for the students and for me. For many, it’s their first travel abroad and almost always their first time in a third-world country. They want to get outside their bubble, find out more about the world. We do good work, learn about the culture, and make time for reflection. Many go on or lead similar trips in their college years and beyond. We take them down a path they may never have gone down otherwise.”
Honored to receive the 2019 Magis
Award, Bill emphasizes that magis
doesn’t mean piling on more, but rather going beyond the superficial to delve deeper. As an example, in his Honors Spanish IV class, Bill draws students into a story by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges with simple language but deeply thought-provoking ideas on self-identity. “It challenges students to consider who they will be 50 years from now. My job is to let them go with that. I like that they wonder—and are not sure of all the answers.” Bill fondly recalls a student who began the El Salvador trip believing “he had it all figured out,” until the last night of the trip when he said with heartfelt honesty, “I have so many questions now.”
Describing himself as a faithful Catholic, Bill embraces the Jesuit history of being a missionary order first and educator second. He encourages students to reflect on the reasons behind what they do. “I want students to ask why, and to see how faith intersects with experience.”
Bill has lived in the Ohio City neighborhood since the 1970s. His parents, William and Alice, are deceased. His sisters are Mary Pat Zirpolo and Nancy McLaughlin, and brother Michael Kelley ’67. He received the Magis
Award at the 35th Annual Saint Ignatius High School Christmas Concert with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus
on Sunday, December 8, 2019, at Severance Hall.