By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
MEREDITH — The students called him "awesome," "nice and friendly," "creative," "amazing," "smart," "handsome," "silly," "caring" and "a one of a kind kind of guy," while Jack Carty, whose tenure on the Inter-Lakes School Board paralleled his career at Inter-Lakes Elementary School, said flatly "Steve Kelley is the best pure educator I have ever met."
Thursday evening, the gym was filled with seating and few seats were empty as pupils, parents, colleagues and well wishers bid farewell and said thank you to the retiring Kelley, who placed his stamp on Inter-Lakes Elementary School for 26 of his 32 years in education, the last 17 of them as its principal.
Dressed in black with a garish tie, Kelley, on guitar and vocals, fronted "The Educators," a group drawn from the school staff he called "rock star wannabes," to open the celebration with with a medley of Beatles' classics. Then he watched as the Blue Wave Broadcasters presented a video featuring interviews with teachers and pupils who were asked to offer their impressions about "Dr. Kelley."
Set in a closet jammed with neckties, a second video played to his fondness for flamboyant ties. Ushered to the stage and seated in a chair by Thing One and Thing Two, Kelley listened as the Cat in the Hat rhymed "Doc, You Moved Mountains." A quartet of newsboys shouting "Extra, extra! Read all about it!" delivered a special edition of the "Inter-Lakes Tribune" announcing Kelley's retirement and celebrating his career.
The Parent Teachers Organization presented Kelley with a memorial of his time at the school to match another that will be placed on the campus.
With that, the gym emptied and the celebration resumed outdoors at the "Living Classroom," the greenhouse which counts among Kelley's most significant contributions to the school. Lisa Merrill of the School Board unveiled a plaque above the entrance naming the Living Classroom in honor of Dr. Steve Kelley.
Speaking at what he called "a bittersweet moment in my life," Kelley said there are hundreds of names for the greenhouse. "It's not my greenhouse," he said. "It's our greenhouse and to the students, it's your greenhouse."
Describing Kelley as "extraordinary," Carty said "He was always focused on education as the bottom line and he made it work." Kelley, he explained, won the affection and respect of the staff and the pupils.
"If Steve Kelley said 'Let's go on a hike' and walked off the edge of a cliff," he remarked, "they'd all follow him."
Kelley came to Inter-Lakes Elementary School in 1983, straight after graduating from Plymouth State University, and taught second and fifth grades. Five years later he was named assistant principal, with responsibilities for Sandwich Central School and Lang Street School as well. He left the Inter-Lakes School District in 1992 to become principal of Conway Elementary School, a position he held until 1998 when Jean Schlager, the principal who first brought him Inter-Lakes Elementary School, tapped him to succeed her.
Kelley, who earned master's and doctoral degrees from the University of New Hampshire, has been named New Hampshire Principal of the Year as well as a national distinguished principal, an honor that earned him a visit to the White House. in 2009 Inter-Lakes Elementary School was honored as the top elementary school in the state.
"I'm very overwhelmed by the love and support of the community," Kelley said. "It's a special connection. It's been a great ride." He said he was especially pleased and moved to see those he remembered as students returning as parents of children at the school. "It's amazing how time flies."
Dr. Steve Kelley was mobbed and high-fived by adoring pupils at the close of ceremonies to mark his retirement after serving for 17 years as the principal of Inter-Lakes Elementary School. (Michael Kitch/Laconia Daily Sun)
Kelley joins the "newsboys" who brought attention to a special edition of the "Inter-Lakes Tribune" reporting on his retirement. (Michael Kitch/Laconia Daily Sun)
Inter-Lakes Principal Steve Kelley addresses the crowd at his retirement gathering Thursday. (Michael Kitch/Laconia Daily Sun)