The first time I saw Dale Kelley was at a basketball game in Bethel College’s old gym. He was playing. I was a kid tagging along just to aggravate and embarrass my elder brother in front of his friends, Jackie Burns and Paul David Campbell.
I was impressed with the ability and speed with which the Bethel players moved up and down the court, especially Dale. He never seemed to be in a hurry or rushed. But he was constantly in the middle of the action. I was in awe of him.
As I grew older I would see him around town from time to time. He was always on the go, but he would speak or wave and give me a smile….I really wasn’t sure he knew who I was.
Until he came by my house one day! I had just graduated from Sewanee. It was in the early summer of 1969. He wanted me to play for a men’s baseball team in Huntingdon. I didn’t have to think about that for half a second.
“Dale, are you kidding me! I’m a McKenzie Rebel. We don’t like Huntingdon at all. Too many football games, basketball games…. I still remember Mud Brown and his buddies calling out the name of a girl I dated in Huntingdon right before every snap my senior year in football. I quit going to the County Fair because it was in Huntingdon….”
He let me rant on like the immature, blooming idiot I was for an unduly long time. The smile never left his face. And when I wound down, he quietly said, “Kes, we’re looking for the best baseball players we can find. And you are definitely one of them. This is not a tale of two cities. It’s a baseball game for goodness sakes.”
I thought then—and I think now—this guy is a lot smarter than I am!
He talked about the manager, Earl Neely, and what a good guy he was. He mentioned Jimmy Redden and Glendon Rich….guys that I knew from over there. And he added that Keith Coleman, from McKenzie, had already signed on.
It turned out to be one of the most fun summers of my entire life.
We practiced one time and went to playing games. Lots of them! We’d play two or three times a week. Every guy on the team was just a great person; and they could all play. Believe me, we won way more than we lost. I think at one point we were like 25 and 6.
We played in every town, city, open lot and wide spot in the road between Lexington and Union City…..listen, we would have played the New York Yankees if Earl could have scheduled a game with them!
Dale Kelley was probably the best player we had. But you wouldn’t know it by his demeanor. He just quietly went about holding down first base and getting key hits. I’m sure he had more to do with putting the team together than anyone else. But that was never mentioned.
He was interested in what I was going to do now that I had graduated. He wasn’t pleased that I was leaving Carroll County. He had a way of making you feel special….which I think was a gift given to him from God!
I can tell you what I quickly came to appreciate. He pulled for you. Genuinely! One game I was picking up a bat and heading to the “on deck” circle when he calmly stopped me, “Kes, have you noticed their pitcher has thrown a first pitch fastball to the last four hitters.”
He didn’t say it like I’m Dale Kelley and you listen to me. It wasn’t in your face I-know-something-and-you’d-better-do-it. It was a quiet, almost offhanded, comment.
And no, I hadn’t noticed because I wasn’t watching. But I went to the plate thinking if that guy throws me a fastball on the first pitch I’ll whop that thing off the left centerfield wall so fast it will give him whiplash turning to look at it! He did and I did. As I cruised into second with a standup double Dale was clapping from the dugout like I had done that all by myself.
I think that is the way the great ones operate.
I don’t have to tell you about Dale Kelley’s distinguished career. If you live in, around or near West Tennessee, you know way more than I about his civic service to Huntingdon, Carroll County and the state of Tennessee. I stand amazed at all the things he accomplished in one lifetime.
Good gracious, they named a highway after him while he was still alive!
The last time I saw him was years ago, at the golf course. Dale came out to give Phil Neal something. And he got to telling the guys in the clubhouse about a diving stop and throw I made in one of those 1969 games. I couldn’t believe he remembered it. And in such detail! And again, he made me feel special.
You don’t forget a friend and mentor like that. Ever! I cherish his touch on my life.
And come to think of it, I am still in awe of him…