By Edie Gross
Pete Kelly had his work cut out for him.
In fall 2017, the College of Education (COE) was already facing the major challenge of impending accreditation. Then, responding to a critical teacher shortage, the governor and State Board of Education, followed by the General Assembly, directed colleges and universities to offer a four-year undergraduate degree in teaching – a change from Mary Washington’s four-year undergraduate program with a fifth-year master’s degree.
“And then in the door walks Pete Kelly,” said Provost Nina Mikhalevsky. As the COE’s new dean, “he not only has to lead a complete revision of the curriculum, but lead a complete revision of the curriculum while doing accreditation.”
She likened the effort to Ginger Rogers having to dance with Fred Astaire backwards and in high heels – and that was before the pandemic threw everyone a curve.
Luckily, this wasn’t Kelly’s first dance. Kelly had served on five state and national accreditation teams and had shepherded his last institution, Missouri’s Truman State University, through the accreditation process between 2013 and 2016. Under Kelly’s leadership, Mary Washington’s COE achieved accreditation in fall 2020. But while Kelly has adeptly handled the administrative side of his deanship in the past four years, he’s really excelled at interactions with colleagues and students.
“He’s extraordinarily sensitive, perceptive, kind, compassionate, and enormously supportive of the faculty,” Mikhalevsky said.
As for the COE students, Kelly never loses sight of the goal that through their classes, practical experiences, and interactions with professors and one another, they will become inspiring, empathetic educators.
‘Teachers made a difference for me’
Truman State, where UMW President Troy Paino previously served as president, is in Kirksville, Missouri, about 90 miles north of Pete Kelly’s hometown of Columbia.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Kelly joked of Kirksville, “but you can see it from there.”
For 17 years, Kelly had served on the faculty of Truman State, which, like Mary Washington, got its start as a teacher’s college before blossoming into one of Missouri’s premier public liberal arts and sciences institutions.
UMW’s public mission and reputation for social justice pursuits were strong draws for Kelly, who became COE dean at UMW in July 2017 after a national search. He’s always had a heart for “the kid in the back row who needed additional support,” because he had been that student himself.
“I knew something about the path that kid was on because I was on it,” recalled Kelly, the fifth of eight children. Kelly’s family was solidly middle class, but his father struggled with alcoholism, and Kelly’s mother was diagnosed with a mental illness that required intermittent hospitalization.
By high school, the challenges Kelly faced at home began to creep into his academic life. “I was having trouble keeping it between the lines,” he recalled. “My parents were so busy with their challenges that it was hard for them to provide guidance.”
That’s where teachers – notably humanities teacher Conrad Stawski and history teacher Dan Wright – stepped in to help Kelly see his own potential. During his senior year at Rock Bridge High School, Kelly was Wright’s teaching assistant and a captain of the football team, which Wright helped coach.
“I think I learned something about the power a teacher has to have a positive influence on the lives of kids,” Kelly said.
Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Kansas in 1986 and became a teacher himself. After a few years he took a job teaching at a correctional facility, where his students were 18- to 22-year-olds who had been sentenced as adults for serious crimes.
“I think one of the things I learned is the distance across the desk was not that great between me and those inmates. A lot of these kids were born into families that were really challenged,” Kelly said. “I never met a perpetrator of violence or crime that hadn’t been a victim first, and often a victim in their own home. I met some amazing and remarkably creative people who were just on the wrong path.”
While working for the Lansing Correctional Facility in Leavenworth, Kelly returned to the University of Kansas to earn a master’s degree and, later, a doctorate in special education with an emphasis in emotional disorders. He joined the faculty of Truman State in 2000.
There, he was an advocate for students going through their own struggles. One of those was Tim Dickmeyer, who took graduate classes while teaching special education math to middle schoolers. He recalled that Kelly offered advice on everything from securing cheaper used textbooks to how to defend his thesis.
“I felt like he supported me when I was on the margins,” recalled Dickmeyer, who earned a master’s degree in 2006. “Pete is one of those teachers that just made a difference for me on every level.”
Dickmeyer went on to teach at Kelly’s alma mater, Rock Bridge High School, and nominated Kelly for the school’s alumni Hall of Fame. At a 2014 dinner, Kelly publicly thanked his former teachers.
Kelly also gave a speech at the homecoming pep rally, where he emphasized the impact that teachers like Stawski and Wright had on his future.
“It gave me a chance to stand up and tell my story,” he said, “how I was struggling to find my way and a couple of teachers made a difference for me.”
Kelly credits his four oldest siblings with helping guide the younger ones through a somewhat chaotic childhood. They remain close despite being spread throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kelly has four adult children from his first marriage – Rachel, a physician in Tucson, Arizona; Drew, an EMT in Minneapolis, Minnesota; Trevor, a brew master in Austin, Texas; and Mackenzie, a veterinary assistant and graduate student in Seattle, Washington – and five grandchildren.
Kelly and wife Julia DeLancey, an art history professor at UMW, have been married for 14 years. It’s no surprise that the couple’s cat, Milo, is named for the main character in The Phantom Tollbooth, a classic tale about a boy who learns to love learning. During years of restaurant work to put himself through college and grad school, Kelly developed a passion for cooking. He also enjoys riding his bike each day to campus and kayaking on his days off.
Not that he’s had a ton of free time since moving to Fredericksburg. During Kelly’s tenure at UMW, the College of Education has been laser-focused on accreditation, designing the new four-year course of study, and building strong partnerships with local school systems where student teachers train before graduating.
Preparing graduates to teach amid economic, political, social, and pandemic-related unrest is a priority for the College of Education – even as it gears up to move to its new home in the fully renovated Seacobeck Hall at the end of 2021, Kelly said.
“Their job is much broader than teaching math, English, and writing, and it’s our job to help them prepare for that,” he said. “On a good day, it’s a hard job. But learning to do that in the middle of a pandemic, under stressful conditions and kids are struggling … We ask too much of teachers, but that’s where we live right now.”
‘Outward-facing’ college makes an impact
Keeping close relationships with local school divisions and the broader community is a key part of helping prepare future teachers.
Rebecca Towery, M.Ed. ’06, director of program evaluation and special projects for Stafford County Public Schools, noted that the college joined the school division in getting a grant to create a middle school community center. There, COE practicum students provide academic support and a safe place for kids to hang out.
The program has been so successful there are plans for a similar project at another Stafford middle school, according to Kristina Peck ’08, the college’s director of clinical experience and partnerships.
Towery and Melanie Kay-Wyatt ’92, M.Ed. ’07, the director of human resources for Spotsylvania County Public Schools, praised UMW’s support for Virginia’s Teachers for Tomorrow, a program that offers hands-on learning opportunities and even college credit to high school students interested in teaching careers. UMW has invited those students to campus to participate in classes, dine with faculty, and enjoy “a day in the life of a college student,” inspiring them not only to pursue the teaching profession but to do so in their own community, said Kay-Wyatt.
Peck recalled accompanying a group of those students on a campus tour pre-pandemic. “I was walking with them, and one of them said, ‘I didn’t think I wanted to go to college, but now I’m really interested.’ To me, that was so powerful to hear a kid say that this experience may have changed his trajectory,” she said.
Both Peck and Kelly keep heavy-duty pipe wrenches in their offices – a gift from April Brecht, the college’s director of advising – as a reminder of the importance of keeping the “pipeline” open, so a steady stream of local high school graduates will flow through UMW and then back into local schools.
“We’re the most outward-facing aspect of this university,” Kelly said. “We need to be seen as relevant and making a difference in the communities we’re a part of. We’re dependent on resources from the state to do the work we do, and we have to do it in a way that makes a difference.”
As the academic foundation upon which the University of Mary Washington was built, the College of Education has essentially been embedded in the surrounding community since 1908, Mikhalevsky said. Kelly’s efforts to expand community partnerships and revise the curriculum in response to critical needs mean the college is well-positioned to make a difference for years to come.
“His leadership comes from and is rooted in a deep, authentic caring and passion for improving the lives of kids in public schools and improving education for kids in public schools,” Mikhalevsky said. “When he’s talking about curriculum, he’s talking about people’s lives. He is going to leave no child behind. None.”