By Madeline Pyle
Special to the Guard
When Bruce Kelley attended Batesville Junior High School in 1970, he did not know he would conclude his teaching career in the same building almost 50 years later. In fact, he didn't even know he wanted to be a teacher.
At May's Batesville school board meeting, Kelley's retirement as a special education teacher at White River Academy, formerly BJHS, was approved. Of his 39 years teaching, 35 were with the Batesville School District.
While in high school, Kelley started volunteering to work with children with disabilities. He was a counselor at several summer camps, and he continued his volunteering into college. However, after a short stint at College of the Ozarks pursuing a philosophy degree, he found himself back at home, wondering what to do.
In the meantime, he decided to go back to volunteering. While working for a summer camp, Kelley was asked to chaperone one of the campers at a Special Olympics event. Kelley cheered on the camper and encouraged him to compete.
"He got first place in the softball throw, and he was so excited," recalled Kelley. "I said, 'Now, I like this.'"
Kelley transferred to the University of Central Arkansas, where he received his bachelor's degree in special education.
His first job was teaching eight students with the Delta Special School District in Rohwer in rural southeastern Arkansas. Kelley said he entered the workforce armed with knowledge but not much experience. After decorating his first school bulletin board, he realized his students could not read it.
"I had a classroom and eight desks, and that was about it."
But Kelley learned quickly, and so did his students. He was delighted to find that the area had Special Olympics, and he bonded with his students by coaching them and taking them to games around the state.
By the end of Kelley's first school year, his students could read and say they had traveled outside of Desha County — two things they could not have done at the beginning of the school year.
"It's more important to inspire, encourage, and support than anything you'll teach them," he said.
In high school, Kelley met a camp director named Bobby Doyle. They didn't know at the time, but Doyle would become Kelley's lifelong mentor. They were reunited when Kelley took his Delta students to a Special Olympics event at UCA. Doyle was then the executive director of Special Olympics Arkansas and would retire as the CEO in 2012.
"We developed a strong friendship throughout our lives," Kelley said, smiling. "We traveled all over the U.S. for Special Olympics."
Kelley holds Special Olympics dear. Besides traveling nationally, Kelley was able to take his athletes to Ireland for the Special Olympics' world games. He has also met several olympians and one of his athletes even met with — and got to go on a job with — President Bill Clinton through the games.
Kelley said his proudest accomplishments in teaching have come years later after teaching his students. While attending a Special Olympics event this past month, he ran into one of his students he taught at Delta over 30 years ago. The former student thanked Kelley for teaching him how to read.
"If my students aren't successful in life, I have not succeeded in teaching them," he said.
As for his secret to teaching for 39 years, Kelley said, "Care about your student as a person. They know if you really care about them."
Kelley's last day at White River Academy is Friday, June 28.