Joe Kelley, first director of Salem Memorial Building, to be named Spirit Award winner

The Salem High School Athletic Hall of Fame is honoring Joe Kelley from the Class of 1917 as its recipient of the 2014 Spirit of Salem Award.

He joins former winners David Plegge, Paul and Carol Sue Headland, and Mark Zocolo.

Kelley’s accomplishments will be recognized at the Hall of Fame’s annual induction dinner and ceremony, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Salem Community Center.

Anyone wishing to attend may make reservations with the Center.

The Spirit of Salem Award was created in 2010 to recognize individuals who, through their hard work and dedication, have had a positive impact on the community’s youth.

A plaque at the Memorial Building honoring Joe Kelley reads: “He Built the Youth of Salem.” He actually accomplished that and much more during his 27 years as director of both the Memorial Building and city parks winning over the hearts of the community along the way.

Kelley himself was an outstanding athlete at Salem High School, where he captained the football and baseball teams. He later played both of those sports at Kenyon College.

But Kelley is best remembered for his hard work and innovations after being named director of the Memorial Building following the facility’s opening in 1924.

The building became a hub of activity under Kelley’s leadership, over the years hosting everything from dances and dinners, to civic organization gatherings, scout meetings, events of coin and stamp clubs, craft shows, Easter egg hunts and Christmas parties.

Seldom having the luxury of paid help, Kelley was personally on hand day and night to greet patrons with a smiling face and friendly hello.

The Memorial Building’s gym was a very special place, where Kelley introduced athletic competitions that included basketball leagues for all ages, tournaments and even indoor softball during the winter months.

Youngsters eagerly looked forward to the track meets at Reilly Stadium arranged by Kelley to provide instruction as well as a chance to compete.

At a time when Salem had no swimming pool, he worked with the city to place spraying devices on fire hydrants around town so that boys and girls could cool off in the heat of summer. He also led children on hikes, and at one time in the 1940s, he was able to transform an area just west of Reilly Stadium into an ice-skating rink.

Perhaps Kelley’s most significant creation was Mickey McGuire League sports in the city’s elementary schools. The league, named after a tough little kid played by Mickey Rooney in the movies, pitted teams from the various schools against each other in softball and basketball. Who was on hand to do almost all of the umpiring and refereeing? It was Joe Kelley, of course, and he knew most of the players by name. Many of them considered him a “second father.”

The Mickey McGuire program for decades proved to be an effective feeder of athletes into sports at the junior high and high school levels. Kelley was an avid backer of Salem High School athletics and was often called upon to give pep talks to the players before big games. He also was responsible for a major reorganization in 1940 of the Salem High School Boosters Club and served as its president for four years.

For many years, Kelley refereed football games throughout Northeast Ohio, and from 1943 to 1947, he was an assistant coach for the SHS football team.

When Kelley died unexpectedly at the age of 51, a Salem News story said he “guided a whole generation of the city’s youngsters to clean living through his recreation activities.” It also called Kelley’s devotion to the athletic and personal development of children “unparalleled in Salem’s history.”