Obituary: Rev. Robert L. Kelley Jr. / Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor

Dec. 1, 1927 - Oct. 30, 2013

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In the late 1960s, the Rev. Robert Kelley took his family to the Grand Canyon, his daughter recalled, and even though he was afraid of heights, "he went up to that railing, gripped it with white knuckles, leaned back away from the edge and said, 'Isn't this great!' "

That spirit -- where the glass was always half full even in trying circumstances -- typified Rev. Kelley, who died Wednesday of natural causes at Providence Point in Scott. He was 85.

Rev. Kelley taught at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for more than 40 years, specializing in New Testament studies, along with Greek and Hebrew. A beloved mentor to scores of seminary students over the decades, he was known for his unflagging interest in other people and for never forgetting their names, not to mention the names of their spouses and children.

"Talk about enthusiasm," said the Rev. Myles MacDonald, former pastor of Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church and a lifelong friend of Rev. Kelley. Noting that word enthusiasm comes from the Greek enthousiazein, meaning "possessed by God," Rev. MacDonald said, "that's exactly the way he was."

The two pastors spent hours together on local golf courses. "We were terrible golfers, but we had the best time. We conversed about everything on the golf course, and he had such a great sense of humor."

A few weeks ago, after Rev. Kelley had become too weak even to lift a spoon, he called Rev. MacDonald "and he put on a fake Scottish accent, as sick as he was. When I signed off, I said I recognized you right away, even when you used that awful Scottish accent, and he laughed and laughed."

The Rev. C. Samuel Calian, who was president at the seminary for much of Rev. Kelley's tenure, said the professor's health began to decline after he lost his wife of 61 years, Ruth, in June.

A coach at heart, Rev. Kelley would teach Greek to seminary students by getting them to learn sports cheers in the language. "That was his way of finding the fun side of the learning process," Rev. Calian said. "And then, if a student was really discouraged over the results of an exam or by not getting a call [to be pastor] from a search committee, Bob would always find the right words to say."

The Rev. Donald McKim, another former student who went on to become a noted author and editor at Westminster John Knox Press, said Rev. Kelley was "a professor who had a pastor's heart. His emphasis was not on research or formal academics, but more what it would mean for people to understand the New Testament in relation to their ministry and Christian life itself."

His most vivid memory was that in his first course with Rev. Kelley, "he would begin every class with prayer, but he was so wrapped up in it that he was the only person I knew who gestured when he prayed."

Growing up in Mt. Lebanon, he became a lifelong fan of Mt. Lebanon High School sports teams, along with the University of Pittsburgh, the Pirates and the Steelers.

He loved baseball, Rev. MacDonald said, but before he could leave his boyhood home with bat and glove in hand, Rev. Kelley's mother Elsie would make him repeat his "life verse" -- Prov. 3:5-6 -- "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."

The Rev. Donald Gowan, a fellow professor at the seminary, said that during his career and even after he retired, Rev. Kelley taught hundreds of courses and Bible studies at local churches.

His daughter, Kathryn Karns, said "he would prepare lovingly to teach those classes and preach at those churches, and I'd say that was as much his hobby as anything."

When her mother had back surgery last year, Rev. Kelley became her full-time caretaker, "and I think it took a really big toll on him and was so stressful that he began to feel that stress even though he held up under it."

In the last several decades, she said, her father and mother were almost never apart, and if he was at work, they would talk several times a day.

A couple of weeks ago during a visit to his bedside, she said, her father reminisced about his wife, and said, "These days, I don't know who to report to."

A memorial service is scheduled at 1 p.m. Monday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 2040 Washington Road, Upper St. Clair. The family will receive guests after the service. Donations may be made to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in care of the Rev. Dr. Robert L. Kelley Jr. Scholarship Fund.

Mark Roth: or 412-263-1130.

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