By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published January 25, 2018
ATLANTA—A fixture at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, athletic director Mark Kelly retired Dec. 31 after more than four decades of service.
“He has brought an intense love of St. Pius and everything Catholic,” said principal Steve Spellman. “He’s going to be hard to replace. It’s his life.”
Although the school has been central to Kelly’s life, he initially was not excited about becoming a Golden Lion.
As an eighth-grader, Kelly received unwelcome news from his father—he would be attending high school at St. Pius X. His parents decided it was the best, academically and spiritually.
The Kelly family moved to Atlanta from New Jersey when Mark was 10 years old. He first attended public school.
“I did not want to leave. That’s where all my friends were. I was playing sports there,” he said.
“When I came here, I did not know one person. No one. It took time.”
The transition became more difficult when Kelly broke his arm and couldn’t play freshman football.
The members of the St. Pius X community helped turn the tide, proving Kelly’s father did know best.
“I had such wonderful friends here who were so good to me, and teachers who saw a guy who was desperately wanting to fit in. They took care of me,” said Kelly.
Kelly played football his sophomore and junior years, but due to a cancer diagnosis did not play as a senior.
He played for legendary coach George Maloof. Sitting in his cubbyhole office this past December, Kelly recalled Maloof.
“When I started playing football for Coach Maloof … It didn’t take me long to realize that when I grew up I wanted to be him,” said Kelly.
It was never just about the game with Maloof, he emphasized.
“He challenged you to be your best and always told you to be the best you could be with the talents that God gave you,” said Kelly.
Maloof pushed athletes to the limit, but in a caring manner.
“He was the fiercest competitor you’ll ever meet, but he also had the biggest heart of any body you’ll ever meet,” said Kelly. “If you played for him, he touched your life. I thank God every day for him.”
Kelly called Maloof, along with founding principal Father James Harrison and former assistant principal Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart Sister Rita Marie Raffaele, the spiritual pillars of St. Pius X.
“They are what this school is built on. They are the heart and soul of this school,” he said.
Spellman and longtime religion teacher, Msgr. Richard Lopez, now retired, both took up this mantle, said Kelly.
“There’s a caring here that I think is special. That kindness radiates through these halls,” he said.
After graduation, Kelly played basketball at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee. He returned home to attend Georgia State when his cancer, a melanoma, returned.
Confronting a dire diagnosis
In the summer of 1975, doctors told him he had six months to two years to live.
“I had always wanted to be a teacher and coach,” he said.
He went to St. Pius to tell Maloof and then-principal Father James Sexstone about his situation.
“I’d like to work at Pius this year because I don’t know how much time I have left,” he told them.
Although there were no jobs available, they gave him a position as a teacher’s helper.
“They chose to find a way,” said Kelly. “Life is about choices. They did not have to do it. They didn’t need to do it. I learned a lot and I coached basketball, which I loved.”
There was no treatment available for Kelly’s stage IV cancer, but he learned of a research trial at Emory University conducted by Dr. William Cassel and Dr. Douglas Murray.
He entered the experimental treatment program with a dozen other patients, all with late stage cancers.
“Mark was our 13th patient,” recalled Dr. Murray, now retired. The idea behind the trial was to combine cancer cells with the Newcastle chicken virus to trigger the immune system to attack the cancer, he said.
The patients received injections and were supposed to spend time in isolation wards.
“I would sneak out and go to practice,” said Kelly.
The study, said Kelly, was cutting edge and the doctors, unbelievable geniuses.
“Now everything’s immunotherapy,” he added.
After two and a half years, Dr. Murray gave his young patient a clean bill of health.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” said Kelly. “He told me that I was cancer-free, but he also told me the other 12 people had all died.”
Kelly’s attitude likely played a role in his outcome.
“He has tremendous drive,” said Murray, who has remained friends with Kelly.
The study’s co-author, Dr. Cassel, was “always a high proponent that outlook can make a difference,” noted Murray.
After the first trial, the doctors decided to launch the therapy as adjunct treatment for patients whose cancers had not spread to distant lymph nodes.
All patients except for one responded and five years later, 65 percent of them were disease free.
“Mark helped us,” said Dr. Murray. “Today, there is a lot of renewed interest in targeted therapy.”
Because of what was gleaned from Kelly’s case and the second trial, doctors learned it could work as adjunct therapy to traditional treatments. How it works is still a mystery, but Dr. Murray attends weekly melanoma conferences at Emory for new clues.
Kelly became the head basketball coach at St. Pius X while teaching social studies and P.E. In 1984, he had another serious health crisis. A perforated colon caused a life-threatening infection, and Kelly spent four months in the ICU on a respirator.
“There again is testament to Mark’s tremendous will to survive,” said Dr. Murray. “Not many survive something like that.”
While in the hospital, Kelly received 133 units of blood, 42 of them in an eight-hour span. This and a conversation with a school parent spurred him to organize regular blood drives at the school and his parish, Holy Cross Church in Atlanta.
He gives talks for the American Red Cross and encourages youth to become lifelong blood donors.
“As I tell the kids, when you give blood you’re choosing to be someone’s angel,” said Kelly. “People they don’t know will live because of them.”
A passion for saving lives
On Dec. 18, 2017, the school held a luncheon for the retiring athletic director.
As part of the program, Ivy Campbell, account manager with the American Red Cross, presented the organization’s Hero Medal to Kelly.
“Mr. Kelly has been the most energetic and motivating blood drive coordinator,” said Campbell. “He is really passionate about saving lives and gets everyone around him as excited. He truly lives a mission of helping his fellow man daily.”
Through Kelly’s efforts, the drives collected 2,498 pints of blood at Holy Cross and 3,378 pints at St. Pius. According to the Red Cross, a pint of blood can save up to three lives. Kelly is credited with saving up to 18,828 lives.
After his 1984 hospitalization, Sister Dawn Gear, school administrator, asked Kelly to address a student assembly.
“There was part of me that was really scared to do that. I had been gone for four months. I wasn’t sure the kids would even remember who I was,” he said.
Kelly paused, his voice breaking, before continuing.
“When I was in the hospital I always felt like someone else was in the room with me, and when I walked into that gym, it was them praying for me,” he said. “That taught me something.”
In an email to the community announcing his retirement, Kelly said he never considered his time at school a job.
“From the time I began here you have put up with me, laughed at my jokes and loved me when I most needed love,” he wrote.
Kelly has many special memories of his time at the school, including the first tournament his basketball team ever won, the first soccer championship, and the time Pius beat Marist in football after a long spell.
“If you hire good head coaches, everything else takes care of itself,” explained Kelly.
He let coaches run their own programs, making sure they had resources and funding.
Kelly expected coaches to be competitive at a state level consistently.
But Kelly required something else of his staff—to be caring. He believes they need to be both caring and driven, not one or the other.
St. Pius X has a “wall of fame” in the gym with banners for being a state runner-up or a champion.
At the Jan. 5 basketball game, the Golden Lions dedicated their gym in Kelly’s honor.
One day, Kelly heard noises in the gym while doing work in his office.
“As I went out there, there was a graduate and his wife, and their little boy,” he recalled. “And the mom was pointing up to the wall and saying, ‘that was your daddy’s team.’ How great is that? But that’s what it means.”
While he has memories of victories, Kelly also remembers how teams handled losses.
“It’s easy to be good when you are on top of the world, but when things aren’t going your way, you much more see the true character of people,” he said. “How do you get through things, how do you process that and how do you bounce back? Ultimately in life, that’s what serves you well,” he said.
During Kelly’s time, the number of students rose from 800 to 1,110 students and the facilities grew, but the spirit of the school remained. Kelly said participation in sports increased over the years with more programs for girls. When he took over as athletic director, participation in athletics was around 52 percent.
“Over 80 percent of our kids are now involved in athletics here,” he said.
One of Kelly’s last duties was to hand out trophies at the Christmas Classic.
Kelly started the classic in 2000. It is now considered one of the premier high school basketball tournaments in the country, attended by Catholic schools from 23 states.
Respect of his peers
Kelly enjoys friendships with the other athletic directors from competing high schools in the archdiocese.
Tommy Marshall, athletic director at Marist School, said Kelly has been a standout as a coach and athletic director in the state of Georgia.
“Mark leaves a legacy of excellence in athletics at St. Pius X High School that is second to none,” said Marshall. “It has been my privilege and pleasure to call him friend.”
Bill Schmitz, athletic director at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayetteville, played basketball for Kelly in the early 1980s.
“Coach Kelly was avid about discipline on and off the court being paramount to our success,” remembered Schmitz. “To this day, as a coach myself at Our Lady of Mercy, it is ingrained in me to never let a man ‘go baseline on you.’ Taking charges and overall solid defense is what wins games.”
Blessed Trinity High School’s athletic director, Ricky Turner, is also a former student at St. Pius X. Turner worked for Kelly for three years.
It was an example “just to see how strong his faith was and how he loved to be around the students,” he said.
Turner first coached at public schools in Rockdale County. Kelly then hired Turner at St. Pius, and later helped him get the job at Blessed Trinity.
“That was huge—to get back into Catholic education,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Mark Kelly.”
When Turner’s young daughter Jessica died in a car crash, Kelly’s support meant everything.
“He was the first one there. I’ll never forget that morning when he walked up to my house,” said Turner.
Kelly said he will be spending more time with his family and wife of 40 years, Linda, who manages the NICU at Northside Hospital. He calls her his “guardian angel.”
The Kellys have four grown children, all St. Pius X graduates. They have nine grandchildren.
Kelly will continue supporting the Red Cross and the American Cancer Society. He will always be a fan of St. Pius, where his faith grew.
“The way I believe in God is that God is in each person,” he explained. “I see it here and that grows your faith.”