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HUCKABY: Our community has lost a great man

We don’t get much news from the newspaper these days. We have Facebook and email and something called Twitter — not to mention the radio and television news. It’s hard for anything to get by us when we are tuned in to the modern world.

But yesterday morning I did see an item for the first time when I opened up my morning paper. The news wasn't good. I learned that my friend John Kelley had passed away on Sept. 15.

I had known that John had been battling cancer for a couple of years. Keith Estes told me at church one Sunday. I immediately told myself that I would make time to drop in on John and spend some time with him. I didn't though. I ran into him a couple of times -- at the supermarket, maybe a high school football game -- the normal places neighbors run into one another.

He was always the same, he always wore a smile and whenever I asked he was "fine."

So I neglected to spend time with John Kelley and now it is too late and the loss is mine. Trust me -- the loss is all mine. John Kelley was polite and genuine and unassuming -- and one of the most accomplished men who has ever called Rockdale County home.

I got to know John and his lovely wife, Martiza, about five years ago. His daughter, Maria, was a student in my AP US History class during her junior year in high school and I met her parents in passing, at open house and curriculum night -- some such event where everyone is milling around at once and it's hard to know who belongs to whom.

I got to know them much better the following year when I spent my one and only year as girls' tennis coach at Heritage High School. Heritage High School was hard up for a tennis coach that year, but I tried. Maria, John and Martiza's daughter, was one of my star players -- and we were a pretty good team, despite the inadequate coaching. We won our sub-region and made it to state.

But Chuck Landy was in charge of the tennis program in general and Chuck was gung-ho, as all good coaches are. He scheduled as many matches and tournaments as the law allowed, and I learned that high school tennis matches could take a long, long time to complete. And after the coach fills in the lineup card there's little left for him to do -- especially when the coach knows as little about tennis as I know.

My point is, John and Martiza were at every match and I got to spend lots and lots of time visiting with John Kelley. Now understand, to look at John at a tennis match you would think he was just another parent, out to watch his daughter compete. He always dressed in casual clothes -- as if he'd just come in from trimming the hedge -- and never called attention to himself in any way. He was as easy to talk to as your favorite uncle. And he never gave me coaching advice, so I spent as much time with him as I could.

I knew that John was semi-retired at this point but I never really knew from what. But one day I asked him and was amazed that this humble, unassuming man had spent nearly 30 years in the United States Foreign Service. He was a professional diplomat, in other words. He was a big deal. He represented our nation's interests all over the world. The guy in khakis and plaid shirt and ragged old hat had been the ambassador to Lebanon from 1986 to 1988. He was ambassador to Finland for another three-year stretch and was assistant secretary of State during the Gulf War.

Assistant secretary of state. That's high cotton. John once told me a great story about being in Russia with President George Bush and Secretary of State James Baker at a banquet in the Czar's palace. They were given a giant leather-bound menu book describing all sorts of gourmet dishes. John watched as President Bush pointed to an item on the menu. The waiter leaned over and whispered something to the president, who smiled and nodded.

The exact same thing happened when Secretary Baker was approached by the server. When it was John's turn to order he pointed to an elaborate dish only to have the waiter lean over and whisper, "We have chicken and potatoes."

John ordered the chicken and potatoes, but said they had lots and lots of vodka to go with it.

I used to put on airs because George W. Bush once asked me about a barbecue stain on my tie and this guy had eaten chicken and drank vodka in the Czar's palace and had the respect of presidents and kings. But that was John. Quiet, unassuming, dignified and capable.

But that's not why I respected him so much and that's not why I will always regret not spending time with him while I could. In addition to being an expert on Middle East affairs and foreign relations and foreign business practices, John Kelley was a great husband and great father and simply one of the finest men I have ever known.

I never told him how much I respected and admired him, but at least I've told y'all.

Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.