by Kent Sterling
For almost 40 years, Lee Kelly has taught people how to behave while on the radio. That was his job, but what he has been to the hundreds and hundreds of teenagers who have been fortunate enough to earn the right to be in his class at New Albany High School is a friend, confidant, and mentor.
I owe my career to Lee. For over 25 years, I have worked in radio in Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis, and my passion for the medium was incubated by Lee at WNAS. More than that, I owe a significant part of my sanity to him.
Throughout my junior and senior years of high school, my distrust for authority combined with what would be considered today an acute case of Attention Deficit Disorder. Then, it was simply diagnosed as a difficult kid to have in class. The environment Lee created in radio class provided the only safe haven I had in high school.
When I had problems, I went to the radio room. Not that I was an angel in there either. Lee threw me out of radio at least a dozen times. “Sterling! Go talk to Mr. Jensen (my counselor), and see what else you can do during third period.” One time, Lee yelled that while throwing a dictionary at the wall.
My lack of respect for rules of any kind made me a good candidate for a career in radio, but an ambivalent (I’m being kind) student. Lee got mad, I got his message, and Mr. Jensen never saw me.
Putting the kid I was in front of a live microphone required a level of trust for which I was undeserving, but Lee did it again and again. I was a jock for three hours every Thursday, and alternated between play-by-play and color for New Albany Basketball and Football. I loved it.
There were nights when I broke format and took the two-way radio out of the studio to the track to do unauthorized play-by-play. It was more fun than playing “Magnet and Steel” by Walter Egan, and Lee never minded – maybe he never knew.
Some teachers hated me, and I mean that they literally hated me. My greatest joy was to annoy them, which explains their revulsion. That’s just the way my brain worked. Lee always appeared to know that behind the mischief there was a human being who was worth patience and occasional frustration. I always loved him for that.
That affection was tempered by incredible guilt over being such an ass to an incredibly good guy whose class allowed for the only place in the school where kids could be socially open.
He held me accountable, and coached me through those two awkward years in a way that made me a decent bet to find a life that was creative, functional, and productive. I repaid him by pissing him off. Life isn’t always fair.
I hope Lee knows the impact he had on the lives of those he taught. For me, I love radio as much today as I did back then, and my love then flowered because we were allowed to search for the honesty and fun that make radio the most personal mass media there is.
Lee Kelly will be missed at New Albany High School and WNAS, but there will forever be radio stations throughout America with voices that have been coached either by Lee himself, or by those he coached. But more, there are many graduates of his program who are better men and women for having been led by him.
Some teachers present information and call it a day. Others find a way to lodge their message of life in the hard drives of their students. Lee has always been the latter, and I silently have thanked him thousands of times for that over the years.
Every high school student should have a teacher like Lee who treats him like a human being instead of a pupil. I’m blessed that he was that for me.
If there is a retirement party for Lee, I’ll shake his hand and thank him then, but there won’t be enough time to allow me to say all the ways he helped me. Glad I have this website to do that.