End of an Era at WNAS – Lee Kelly Retiring from New Albany High School

by Kent Sterling

The ageless Lee Kelly will retire after this school year.  He looks almost exactly as he did when I was a student.  Amazing.

The ageless Lee Kelly will retire after this school year. He looks almost exactly as he did when I was a student. Amazing.

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.

7 thoughts on “End of an Era at WNAS – Lee Kelly Retiring from New Albany High School

  1. Steve holiday

    Do you know if there will be a retirement party for him, and if so, do you want to attend? Let me know what you find out.


    1. kentsterling Post author

      I would absolutely attend. Have not heard about a party, but I am not plugged into the circles that would discuss it.

  2. sally kelly

    What a nice tribute to my husband. He has worked so hard and has loved almost every minute. I know he is going to miss this every single day…but, I hope he can enjoy his retirement. He deserves it! sally

  3. Larry Estep

    Wow. I share a very similar story about Mr. Kelly. I had alot of problems in high school, and I missed alot of days because of it. The radio room was my refuge, and there were days when I would show up at school halfway through the day and “hide out” in the radio room. There were days I didn’t want to go to school at all but knowing I would get to do something on air was enough to get me there.

    Lee actually let me start sharing the studio with him before I was officially in the program. I would come in and help with news and weather on Coffee With Kelly, and he allowed me to create some great special Saturday events including a Top 80 of the 80’s countdown and all day coverage of the Children’s Christmas Festival that was hosted at NAHS as part of the theater dept. (There is a You Tube playlist of some clips from my WNAS days at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL20FA8F0C482AE009 and a tribute page at http://www.weathermansworld.com/wnas.html)

    While other students wanted to be at the ballgames, I wanted to be controlling things in studio. I would spend many evenings sitting alone in the control room and trying to make sure that things aired smoothly. Lee would sometimes get aggravated at me and try to motivate me, and there were times when he thought I had a set of “magic legacy keys” that supposedly were handed down from one Operations Director to another through the years. I never did have any such keys, but Lee always thought I did. I just was able to get the janitors to unlock doors whenever I wanted. Lee hated that.

    Lee was indeed a mentor, and words cannot adequately thank him for the experience that I had at WNAS. He is a local broadcasting legend, and he has more than earned a happy and healthy retirement.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Excellent about the legacy keys. Back when we were in the old radio room, there was a door from the backstage area of the old auditorium that led into the back of the radio room. Every morning at 6:30a, I would use a dime to unscrew the vent on the bottom of the door, crawl through, replace it, and fire up the transmitter. Not sure whether Lee ever knew that I was hosting my own morning show for through 1979 and 1980, or how I found my way in. You’re right though. Radio was a refuge, and Lee set the tone that made it rewarding.

      He always held us accountable, but as something other than dumbass kids.

  4. Brian Sullivan

    I was on the WNAS staff during the 1991-92 school year. To this day I still have in my possession cassette tapes of my final show, an epic six hour stretch that I think I let spill over another 30-45 minutes. I ‘m sure Lee had to be rolling his eyes that night as I refused to sign off that last time.


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