At age 94, Dr. Kelley's sense of humor still intact

Whatever his secret for longevity, the fact is that Dr. Walter Kelley is 94, still alert and, in his own words, still "fine for the activities of modern life."He's had to sell his trusty Lincoln Continental recently because the DMV wouldn't permit him to drive anymore, but getting around and about has not been a problem: his children look in and "get me what I want" and otherwise help him with transportation. Besides, there's always Downey's Dial-a-Ride. His having to use a walker is another one of those slight inconveniences, but his mind is as keen as ever, and to him this is far more important: "I'm lucky. My brain is [still] working fine." The retired general practitioner is looking forward to Sunday afternoon, Sept. 20, as he again hosts the Downey Symphony's annual garden party at his spacious home. Numerous friends and supporters of the Symphony have been invited to the summer event which last year drew an estimated 75 guests. It is anticipated that this year's garden party fundraiser, whose proceeds are earmarked for the Symphony's much-appreciated Music in the School's program, will draw an even greater attendance, to include Dr. Kelley's long-lost friends and acquaintances. The Music in the Schools program benefits the thousands of public and private elementary school kids in Downey. In addition to the "great food, dessert, champagne," and more, there will be "great music," according to Downey Symphony stalwart and publicist Joyce Sherwin. Harold Tseklenis, a board member since the '60s, says "many well-known performers who have over the years appeared as soloists with the Downey Symphony have been invited, including last fall's piano soloist, Pauline Yang." The other major Symphony fundraiser is held in the fall. The total funds target, says Tseklenis, is "in the order of $150,000," with the Symphony's three annual concerts as well as its Concerts-in-the-Park performance(s) accounting for the larger portion of the annual budget. He adds: "Within the last few years, it's been increasingly difficult to raise the funds for the full program of the Symphony." Dr. Kelley, who also gained a reputation for delivering babies ("One time I delivered 100 babies in one day," he says), was born in the rural town of Fordville, North Dakota (pop. 400), graduating from Fordville High School in 1932. It was the height of the Depression, he says, and after a five-year hiatus, during which he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps, he was able to matriculate at the University of North Dakota, where he earned both a BA in pre-med and a BS in medicine. The year: 1942. A recommendation from his mentor landed him in New York City, where he enrolled at New York Medical College. Because of WWII, the medical program at the college was accelerated to two years, and, taking advantage of a U.S. Army program which paid his tuition for a year and a half, he got his medical degree in 1944. He married dietitian Arlyss, whom he met back at the University of North Dakota, soon after. The war was over then, but not his obligation to the Army. He recounts his tour of duty thus: "The Army sent us nine men and two officers to the very south South Pacific, to New Caledonia, Fiji, the British and American Samoa, Ruratanga, and Tongariva, which was a coral atoll. What did we do? We essentially went sight-seeing and fishing." Moving to Southern California in 1948, Dr. Kelley worked for Dr. Hickey in South Gate for a while, then opened his own clinic. Afterwards he was to work for 39 years at St. Francis Hospital, while also getting actively affiliated with Downey Community Hospital (now DRMC) the last five years of his active medical practice. They had moved to Downey in the meantime in 1951. After he retired, and some two or three years before Arlyss died nine years ago, the couple did a little traveling, including trips to Germany, Italy, Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Alaska. Arlyss was very active in the community, and served on the Symphony board for years. Not exactly an athlete in his youth, Dr. Kelley achieved a golf handicap of 15, playing at Candlewood Country Club. He swore he'd quit golf if his game were to deteriorate to a 30-handicap, which of course happened. Accepting the inevitable, he promptly mothballed his golf set. Today he enjoys playing bridge Tuesday nights with his buddies. There's no ifs and buts about the highlight in his life. "Unquestionably the two greatest things that ever happened to me were getting my medical degree and getting married [to Arlyss]," he says, "and both happened in 1944." Downey Symphony board member Dr. Kelley says he enjoys listening to the music of the Downey Symphony, but at this point in his life one senses that there's no music sweeter than the ringing of his land phone: the caller may be a friend or his son Burt or daughter Maureen who's checking up on him or another daughter calling from Germany to say 'hello'. His sharp sense of humor intact ("My biggest problem is I'm 94. Living too long is fatal"), he says, "Family is the most important thing to me."

********** Published: September 18, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 22