The longtime director of the city band and co-founder of the Plymouth Congregational Church bell choir has died.
Bill Kelly, the man who reinvigorated the Lawrence City Band and for whom the South Park gazebo is named, died Tuesday evening at his home. He was 78.
After playing clarinet in the band during the 1960s, Kelly took over as director in 1970 for a departing Ken Bloomquist. He conducted his last concert in 1991, handing the baton to KU band director Robert Foster the next summer.
"His passion for music, especially band music ... was very unique," said Foster. "He really left a mark on a lot of people's lives."
More than 20 years ago, Kelly and his wife, Barbara, founded the Plymouth Congregational Church bell choir.
"I remember him as a music-maker, and not just of music in the literal sense," said the Rev. Butch Henderson of Claremont, Calif., a longtime pastor at Plymouth in Lawrence who played baritone horn in the city band. "He really knew how to bring out the very best music in a person's life."
By all accounts, Kelly was a vibrant perfectionist who on occasion showed his temper when things weren't going according to musical design.
"One time he threw a chair at me in church," Henderson recalled, adding that 30 seconds later Kelly was back to his old self. "It just shows how deeply involved he was in everything that he did."
Kelly grew up in McCook, Neb., where his father was the high school band director. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music education at the University of Nebraska, serving four years overseas in the Army during World War II.
After the war he taught music at the high school and junior college in McCook and at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo., before entering the doctoral program at KU in 1960. While at KU, Kelly, who learned the clarinet at age 6, taught private music lessons, briefly led KU's pep band and was an instructor of wind and percussion instruments.
On his frequent trips with the KU band, the student musicians called him "Red Dog Kelly," said Tom Stidham, assistant band director.
Well-regarded as a man of music, Kelly earned his keep as an administrator at KU, as associate dean of educational services among other positions
In the city band, he was a "driving force," said band member Clyde Bysom. Kelly's musical selections ranged from Tchai-kovsky and Mendelssohn to Sousa and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
In 1989, Kelly, a Sousa devotee, and the band were awarded the Sudler Scroll, given by the John Philip Sousa Foundation in recognition of the highest performance standards.
About that time, the South Park gazebo was named in his honor. Kelly remained humble: "I'm just the head librarian," he once said of his conducting duties.
"It was always a challenge to play in one of Bill's rehearsals," said Jack Brookshire, a trumpet player and a member of the band's board of directors. "He wanted everything to be perfect."
Kelly's son, Bill Kelly Jr., agreed.
"He demanded the best out of everybody," he said.
Added Barbara Kelly: "he was my teacher, too."
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- An obituary for Bill Kelly appears on page 3B.