My dad turns fifty-six in just a few weeks, and in those fifty-six years, he has worn about a hundred different hats. A Renaissance man with implacable curiosity, deep intellect, and the tough and tender way of a farmer, we often joke about his many careers. A pastor at the same country church for the last thirty years, he knows what it means to commit deeply to a place, but hasn’t foregone adventure and variety. 

Last week I was reminiscing about “the cowboy years,” when the our family developed a collective love for horses and ranch work. He used those years to give me reprieve from the hard days of middle school by driving me twenty-three hours down to Mississippi, where I could work cattle on endless tracts of land. 

Then I thought about the nights driving back from Peek ‘n’ Peak in the red F-150 after hours spent exploring the mountain on my own while he taught beginners how to make parallel turns. As I shivered in the passenger seat, he always told me, “It will be warm by the time we hit the bend,” and he was always right. The heater would do its work and I would be asleep by the time we hit Wattsburg. 

Then there’s hunting, and the days that dad would pull us out of school for a “family emergency” so that we could chase after dogs who chased after pheasants and then watch as their iridescent feathers caught the autumn sun. And there was the pet deer who came as a Christmas present and lived well-loved in our woods, teaching us all how to love a big animal. 

And then Shorty the rabbit dog, and the barn cats that dad rescued on a freezing night, and Molly the Mississippi dog, and the horses, a father and son who needed a home and found one in our pasture. Dad’s tenderness has always come out in his gentle way as a farmer. 

For a while he worked as a meat cutter at our local Wegmans, and in that season he taught informal cooking lessons in our kitchen. He taught my brother, sister, and I how to season and sear a steak, and how to pair wine with a main course, and how to steam mussels. He taught us about cheeses and salamis, and we tasted and discovered and celebrated the gifts of our magical life—the one that he was creating for us every day. 

No project was ever too big for my dad. He facilitated our creativity and curiosity at every turn. I never doubted that dad would be there for me—it is still a comfort for me to know that he will move heaven and earth to love me tangibly. Even as I’ve grown, this hasn’t changed—my dad places his responsibilities as father and husband highest on the list, and the sacrifice of that commitment isn’t lost on me, especially now that I’ve grown. 

The best gifts that my dad has given though, are the lifetimes that he has created for us. I’ve played cowgirl and EMT and fishing guide and ski instructor and farmer and contractor and chef and heavy equipment operator and hunter and chaplain and sailor all because my dad did the work to create those moments for me. He created adventures and loved us enough to let us be afraid sometimes, like before my first rodeo when my eyes welled with frightened tears, or when I took my EMT practical exam, or when I shot my first deer from behind that softwood pine. He let us feel afraid, because he knows and practices the joy of pushing through discomfort to truly be alive. I have known that exhilaration because of my dad. Every one of those memories ends with my cup full to the brim—he knows this, and has always shared this most important secret to life. 

An exceptional man. An exceptional father. A giver of lifetimes. Happiest of birthdays to you, dad.


  1. Rita Young

    He deserves every word and I’m glad you wrote them, Ansley.

    • Vickie Wheeler

      Your Dad is a very good teacher preacher. I have heard all his sermons for the past 21 years. He is so smart it boggles my mind
      sometimes when he preaches, right over my head. Happy 56th Birthday Pastor Kelly! I am also 56.

  2. Dorothy A Smith-Frazier

    It was wonderful reading this amazing tribute to Pastor Kelly by his daughter Ansley. I am proud to say I was blessed to meet the Kelly family when Ansley came to the Charter School of Excellence as a Gifted Middle Schooler. I often think about the wise young student who told me she wanted to be president one day. Blessings to you Ansley. My God bless the works of your hands Madam President.


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