Steve Charles—It’s my favorite scene from last year’s Big Bash Reunion: Carl Kelley ’43 is seated in Lilly Library, grinning like a kid as he tells a story about his days as student at Wabash. His son, Mike Kelley ’70, who made sure his dad made it back to Wabash for this moment, is beaming alongside him. At their left is student intern Brandon Hirsch ’10, laughing so hard tears are coming to his eyes as Carl quotes his Wabash professor’s views on sex and the human anatomy.
(See a photo album from that interview here.)
It was a perfect beginning for the Scarlet Yarns, our attempt to capture on tape the stories of our alumni. Relaxed and lighthearted one moment, serious the next, Carl talked about what he wanted to talk about. Not worried about what someone else might want him to say. It was just what we were hoping for—his Wabash experience in his own words.
Halfway into Carl’s “interview,” we knew project coordinator Marilyn Smith’s idea to try out this video twist on NPR’s Story Corps project was a great one. And those waiting their turn to tell their stories couldn’t help but notice how much Carl had enjoyed himself, not to mention how much we enjoyed him.
Carl Kelley died this past Christmas Eve. Mike was kind enough to let us know, and passed along a few more stories from his Wabash days. Here’s one:
“Dad rode an Indian motorcycle when he attended Wabash, on which he apparently got around to many other campuses for dates. He always laughed about having dates with three Butler women in one day: one for a picnic in the afternoon; a second for a dance at a sorority house; and the third one picked him up at midnight in her car. None of them was my mother, who went to Valparaiso. Not bad for a kid born on the Kelley family farm in Woodland, Indiana.”
I can see Carl telling that story even now.
Carl played basketball and football at Wabash, was president of Sigma Chi, and a member of the Sphinx Club. After Wabash he became an engineer at U.S. Steel, married his wife, Katherine, and they had eight children. All those kids gathered together for the funeral, along with 13 of Carl’s 14 grandkids. We’ll have a remembrance in the Spring 2009 Wabash Magazine.
But Mike also wrote to tell us how much that Big Bash visit last year had meant to his dad.
“It was certainly a highlight of his last year. So many people at the College made special efforts to make the day memorable. He never quit talking about it.”
“He treasured the day and I was lucky to spend it with him,” Mike writes.
But we were the lucky ones. Carl’s visit was the greatest affirmation we can get for the work we do here in alumni and public affairs. And with Mike prompting and encouraging his dad during our recording session, that segment of the video captures both Carl’s affection for Wabash and a son’s love for his father.
I look at this picture of Mike and Carl and think of my own dad and our project to record his stories during his final years. I’m glad I have those stories. I listen to them and I write them down for his grandkids and great grandkids to read. I want them to know him.
But I have to admit that my project was as much an excuse to for me to spend time with him, to let the power of story draw us closer.
Maybe that’s why this picture of Carl and Mike is my favorite from last year. It may end up being my favorite for a long time. It’s like we’ve been invited to sit at the table and listen in and laugh with family, watching a father and son savoring life and a love they share.
How lucky can you get?