Mortal after all

Posted on May 19, 2013

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There was obviously one person missing from Cobern Kelley’s 100th birthday celebration on Friday, and that was Cobern Kelley. Maybe after 45 years, Y Boys, their parents and everyone else who worshipped him should accept his death. The problem is, we were all convinced he was immortal.

Kelley died on April 11, 1968, in the gym at Pine Tops, the Athens YMCA camp he built along the banks of the Middle Oconee River with his own hands and determination. He was 54. So he was human after all. He sure fooled a lot of people.  

He fooled us every summer when he packed up a bus load of rambunctious boys and took off for California or Canada or Florida. With an itinerary only Kelley knew, he drove the Blue Bird bus, and we sat back and took it all in: Coney Island, Niagara Falls, Disneyland, Yellowstone, Juarez, White Sands Missile Base and the Green Bay Packers’ training camp. It was an eclectic mix of places Kelley thought his boys should be exposed to, and who were we to question.

At day’s end, Kelley would pull the bus off the road and rustle up supper. (I remember a lot of chipped beef on toast and Hawaiian Punch.) Then we would have a Bible study, sing some songs accompanied by Kelley on ukulele and sleep under the stars.

He fooled everyone into thinking he was bigger than life every time he took a bunkhouse full of boys under his wing for weeks at a time at Pine Tops. We’d eat pancakes in the dining hall, play games and catch snakes during the day. At night Kelley would lead vesper services in the chapel he built on the rock that everyone said wouldn’t hold such a structure. The Old Rugged Cross, Deep and Wide and There’s a Church in the Valley by the Wildwood were my favorite hymns. Kelley led the singing and played the organ, sometimes accompanied by a chorus of kazoos. Was there was nothing the man could not do? Not in our eyes.

He fooled us for years while in charge of after-school sessions at the Y. Before we moved into the big new building on Hawthorne, where Kelley is buried and where we came to be part of his 100th birthday celebration, we met in a rambling brown brick building at the corner of Broad and Lumpkin streets. Kelley coached us in whatever sport was in season; if weather forced us indoors, we played steal the bacon and dodge ball. Afterwards, Kelley would lead a Bible study and hand out a new page for our Good Thoughts notebook, a collection of his favorite quotations and life lessons. Then, we’d peel off every stitch of smelly clothing and swim naked in the indoor pool.

Of course, that would never happen today. Not only because of the tenor of our times, but also because there’s no Kelley for mothers and fathers to entrust their boys.

Once, while riding the Cyclone and eating hotdogs at Nathan’s on Coney Island, my classmate Tom Hodgson wandered away from the group. He still hadn’t shown up when we got back to the bus and the grimy parking lot where we were going to sleep. If Tom’s parents had known what was going on, they might have been frantic, but only until they remembered their son was with Kelley. “He’ll be back,” I remember Kelley saying. And sure enough, a few minutes later, he walked up with one of New York’s finest.

Then he just out-of-the-blue died. No one was ready for that. We thought he was immortal because we thought he deserved to be. We all had the same question: How could the most unforgettable person any of us had ever known, the strongest, the most charismatic, the person who had put so many boys on the right path die without warning?

I heard the news in sixth period at Athens High School. On the bus home, I didn’t want to hear any of the talk. Maybe it was some kind of mistake, a cruel late April Fools’ joke. But when I ran home from the bus stop and my mother opened the door in tears and grabbed me, I could no longer pretend that Kelley was not gone.

But he was here long enough to become the most important influence in my life and in the lives of thousands of others. I don’t know that the boys who came through the Athens YMCA in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s are better men today than others who grew up then, only without Kelley’s guidance. But I know this: Kelley sure gave us that chance.  Image

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