When Michael S. Kelly was a student at Oak Park and River Forest High School, he picked some kids who’d never been in a play to star in “Bleacher Bums.”
The 16-year-old director knew they’d make the characters come to life.
“It’s a play about rebels and oddballs,” said his mother Karen Kelly. “He cast people who had never been in a show, and they could embody these characters so well. It was an absolutely brilliant show.
“He was always a kid that people would talk to or tell their troubles to,” she said. “So I wasn’t surprised when he decided to be a social worker.”
Mr. Kelly worked for 14 years as a school social worker at Indian Trail Middle School in Addison and at Oak Park’s Mann and Lincoln elementary schools.
“He was drawn to people who other folks had given up on, whether it was kids who refused to come to school or teachers who everyone else said, ‘Don’t even bother,’” said Kate Phillippo, an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago.
Mr. Kelly went on to be a professor in the School of Social Work at Loyola University. He helped write and edit five books, including “Christianity and Social Work” and “School Social Work: Practice, Policy and Research.”
He was a member of the Oxford Symposium in School-Based Family Counseling, an international group of scholars who meet at the University of Oxford to improve treatment through schools and families working together.
“He was the foremost scholar and practitioner of school-based family counseling in the social work field,” said Brian Gerrard, director of the symposium.
Mr. Kelly, 52, of Oak Park, died by suicide Sept. 2.
“He was seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist and exercising every day and taking his meds,” said his wife, Dr. Lucy Fox.
But he lost his struggle with depression and took his life, Fox said.
“I keep trying to frame it that I had 31 years with him, and 30 of them were really great,” she said. “I feel like I could talk about him for 31 more. He was an amazing man.”
During the civil rights movement, his father Richard traveled to Mississippi to teach at a Freedom School established to improve education for Black children. His mother admired Kwame Ture, the activist formerly known as Stokely Carmichael who was a leader in the 1960s Black Power movement.
They named their son, who was born in 1968, Michael Stokely Kelly.
His mother took him to the haunting film “Grave of the Fireflies.” Young Michael also loved Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.”
Later, he shared his love of anime with his sons Benjamin, Isaac and Alfred.
“He made sure his boys saw all of those things,” his mother said.
While at Oak Park and River Forest High School, he made money by answering phones at the Oak Park Library and working at Russell’s Barbecue.
His mother said he was 13 when he told her, “Let’s go to Ireland,” where he’d listen to the wit and wisdom in its pubs. “He immediately started conversations,” she said.
It led to a lifelong love of Ireland and frequent trips. For a few summers, he helped lead Rick Steves’ tours of Ireland.
He met his future wife at the University of Michigan.
“He was so cute, so interesting and smart and political,” she said.
He became her Scrabble buddy, but when they played, “I was so distracted,” she said. She kept wondering: “Are we going to kiss tonight?”
Later, he got his master’s and doctoral degrees in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“He had a knack for letting young people know that his office was a safe space and haven for them to unload their burdens,” said Kila Bell-Bey, an Oak Park Elementary School District 97 social worker.
Goutham M. Menon, dean of the School of Social Work at Loyola, said, “He was a consummate professional. Thoughtful, serious, funny, quirky, he brought to life his passion for school social work in so many ways for our students.”
Tom Tebbe, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Social Workers, said Mr. Kelly “really encouraged social workers with the ideas they had the abilities to do the job and to do it well.”
Mr. Kelly ran 18 marathons. He loved the music of Van Morrison, U2, Alejandro Escovedo and Amy Ray. And he was a youth minister at St. Giles Catholic Church in Oak Park.
A memorial is planned for 4 p.m. Oct. 18 at Loyola’s Madonna della Strada chapel. It will be livestreamed on YouTube at https://youtu.be/vVe5FcOHtbQ.