Originally published October 5, 2018
When he was a student at Munising High School, Ryan Kelley was a star athlete in basketball, track, baseball and football. As a football all-stater, he played quarterback, defensive back, kicker, and kick- and punt-returner.
So it is with his education career over the past 30 years at Rockford Public Schools. He has taught science and math, coached multiple sports and Odyssey of the Mind, been an assistant principal and principal at middle and high schools, and, for the past 11 years, assistant superintendent of instruction.
So when he retires on Dec. 31, Kelley will do so as an educator who’s played just about every position while always keeping his eye on the ball: the success and welfare of students.
“I hope I came across as someone who cared for kids, who was willing to do whatever it took to help them — in tough times and good times, that I was there for them,” Kelley said, shortly after announcing his retirement to the school board.
He did that and more, said Superintendent Michael Shibler, who arrived in Rockford a year after Kelley did.
“Ram pride: He lived it,” Shibler said. “I truly believe he made a very impressive difference in the lives of not only students but adults as well. At the same time, he always put his family first.”
From Poverty to College
Kelley, who turns 53 this month, did not expect to spend his entire career at Rockford after being hired as a middle school teacher in 1988. As he put it in his retirement letter, “if you would have told me that this is what my story would be, I would not have believed it. I was a Yooper that wanted to get out of the snowy climate.”
But there were good reasons he ended up here. His mother, Marcia, always emphasized education to her six children, even as she struggled financially to raise them after divorcing when Ryan was 4. His father, Bob Kelley, was a teacher and counselor at Union High School in Grand Rapids.
Growing up in the tiny burg of Shingleton, Ryan and his siblings on winter mornings would stoke the wood stove to melt a pot of snow, which they used to prime the outdoor pump to wash up with. They did not have electricity for a while, he said, and his mom once cooked their pet goat and told them it was venison. It’s a story of poverty he tells with a chuckle, insisting it was “a wonderful place to grow up.”
While earning a teaching degree at Central Michigan University he met Jody Beerman, who as Indiana’s Miss Basketball 1983 graced a Wheaties box. They gave out hundreds of cartons at their wedding.
After student teaching at Grandville, Kelley received offers from five school districts. He chose Rockford and was never sorry. Besides the satisfaction of his work, he and Jody saw the school system benefit their three sons, Bryce, Reid and Ty, all graduates. Their good experiences in classrooms, sports and band typify Rockford’s plentiful opportunities for students, he said.
“There’s something for everyone here,” said Kelley, who earned a doctorate at Eastern Michigan University. “Our community and school really are one. I couldn’t have picked a better place to raise a family and work.”
Funny Memories, Painful Challenges
Kelley keeps a file of notes of appreciation. One mother wrote, “Words cannot thank you enough for what you have poured into RHS. You probably will never know how many lives you positively influenced.”
He also keeps a trove of funny stories in his head, such as the time a student was kicked off the bus. His father came to get him with a mule, saying that would be his ride home if he got kicked off again.
But he can’t forget the students who died in car accidents, or the girl who died on stage, during his seven years as high school principal. “You need to be there at the toughest time, to help families through,” he said.
Kelley has faced his own struggles since being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 33. That has increasingly hampered his walking, while injuries including a broken kneecap and torn Achilles tendon have also taken their toll. He has endured with exercise, medicine, prayer and a lot of Yooper grit.
Now, still active but sometimes aided by crutches and a cane, the time feels right to retire, he said. “I think I’m ready, and someone else can do as good a job or better.”
Despite his health setbacks, Kelley looks back with great gratitude on his Rockford school days – and looks forward to breakfasts with Jody and long days on the golf course.
“With all my heart I can say every day’s been a good day,” Kelley said, tears beginning to well. “You’re never going to hear me complain.
“I’ve got a wife and three kids that are better than I deserve. I’ve got a job that’s better than I deserve. This little Parkinson’s thing is not going to get me down.”