50 years later, DeLaSalle alum still inspires classmates

| November 21, 2011 | 0 Comments
DeLaSalle Reunion

Hugh Fleetham, left, and Pat Shannon talk with Mike Kelly during a DeLaSalle High School Class of 1961 reunion and birthday party for Kelly at Elsie’s Bar, Restaurant and Bowling Center in northeast Minneapolis Nov. 15. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Mike Kelly’s memory is legendary. That’s what fellow members of the 1961 graduation class at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis have said for years about Kelly, who graduated from the school despite the challenge of a developmental disability.

“He can remember guys who started at DeLaSalle but didn’t finish,” said classmate Steve Roth of St. Leonard of Port Maurice in Minneapolis. “He remembers every one. He can tell you the homeroom they were in. He can tell you the year they left and why.

“His memory is unparalleled. He can remember your wife’s name, your children’s names.”

Coming together

That is one quality that makes Kelly a huge asset at the annual class reunion parties, which began in 1975 and continue to this day. Actually, the parties are a combined reunion and birthday party for Kelly, whose birthday is Nov. 26.

The class had two gatherings this year, the official 50th class reunion party in August, and the more informal annual gathering that took place Nov. 15 at Elsie’s Bar, Restaurant and Bowling Center in northeast Minneapolis. A total of 42 men from the class attended.

“It’s a family-type thing,” said class member Pat Shannon, who lives in Edina and belongs to St. Stanislaus in St. Paul. “I try to make it every year. I have made lifelong friends at DeLaSalle.”

Everybody, it seems, is friends with Kelly, who lives with autism, which wasn’t diagnosed until years after his graduation from DeLaSalle.

Knowing he had a disability, his mother, Anna, nonetheless enrolled him at the school, believing the challenge would be good for him. He was able to handle the academics with a lot of work, but he also had to deal with teasing from classmates.

“We made his life pretty difficult, quite frankly, in a lot of ways,” said classmate Paul Harmon, of Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville.

Despite the teasing, Kelly enjoyed his time at DeLaSalle and liked his classmates. Unfortunately, after graduation, he stumbled and eventually landed in mental health institutions, where he spent several years.

He stabilized and landed a job at Opportunity Workshop (now called Opportunity Partners), which provides jobs and other services for disabled adults. He retired almost two years ago after 42 years with the organization, and still lives in Minneapolis.

As he moved forward in life, his mother encouraged him to reach out to his classmates. He began calling them and writing lengthy Christmas letters that he mailed out to them.

Sensing his vulnerability — and wanting to make amends for the way some treated him — the members of the class, which numbered 325 (58 have since died), decided to reciprocate Kelly’s correspondences. The reunion was started by three members: Paul Harmon, Frank Lang and Tim Burns. Kelly has attended every one.

“It started out as a little get together for Mike,” Harmon said. “Then, it expanded.”

Raising funds

Within the last two years, the Class of ‘61 created the Mike Kelly Special Scholarship Fund for special needs youth wishing to attend the school. Class members hope the fund will grow to the point of being able to start a special needs department at DeLaSalle.

“This year, we have generated about $60,000 so far,”?Harmon said. “It’s phenomenal — due totally to the ‘61 class. We haven’t gone outside [the class] yet. We will next year.”

Members of this class have learned what a blessing it is to have students like Kelly. At last week’s reunion, he made them laugh with his imitations of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, plus actor John Wayne. Then, he continued to dazzle them with his amazing memory.

But, rather than quirky, his classmates see that quality as endearing, which is why so many of them show up every year. And, they give generously to cover the costs, with the extra money used to buy things that Kelly needs.

“I think we all enjoy doing it and all the guys enjoy coming,” said class member Jim Litecky of St. Jerome in Maplewood, who has taken over as reunion organizer and also serves as the emcee. “It [helping Kelly] is something that we were taught at DeLaSalle.”

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