After a long life well lived and after battling Parkinson’s Disease for more than 35 years, Gene Kelley passed away on October 1 in Goleta. Gene’s family was with him, as they have always been, no matter where they lived. He would have been 89 on his next birthday in November.
Gene was born in 1925 in Pelham Manor, New York. He was an outdoorsman from the get-go, finding adventure in the nearby marshes and flyfishing action in the local trout streams. A photo of him from about 1935 shows him proudly displaying a great catch. In his teens, he kept falcons, regularly taking them out to hunt.
World War II was three years old when Gene enlisted at 17. After serving his country in the Army Air Corps as a radar technician, he headed for Syracuse University. As a freshman, he was part of an eight-oared crew that missed by inches beating the eventual 1948 Olympic champion University of Washington team.
Gene joined another big team at Syracuse when he met and wooed “the prettiest girl on campus,” Elizabeth “Betty” Schaefer. They were together for the rest of his life. They graduated and married in 1950 and returned to the New York City suburbs to make a home. Gene continued his outdoor adventures, fishing, hunting, and camping nearby and throughout the Northeast.
In 1952, Gene and Betty welcomed their first child, Ernie, who was joined by Phil in 1954 and Susan in 1956. After a brief stint at Standard Brands, he worked for Chase Manhattan for most of the early years of their marriage, making the commute into the city from their home in Eastchester. Gene would work in several fields in his life, from advertising and marketing to printing and power equipment sales. But throughout his life, work was a job . . . everything else was his passion.
His friends and family marveled at his ability to fix anything, often with creative and work-around solutions. His creativity with his hands helped him create furniture for their house and for others, and to invent a fishing lure he proudly called the Kelley Belley. Fishing was a particular passion, and he got so good at the art of it that he won a competition as the best fly-caster in New York State.
With his sons along for the glorious ride, Gene became the Scout Leader extraordinaire, leading canoe trips into the wilderness and passing along not only his knowledge but his passion for outdoor adventure.
In 1963, the family welcomed daughter Patty, and they made the move to the house in Pleasantville, New York, where they would live for the next 30-plus years. There Gene found a new passion: Helping others (while having fun with the guys). He joined the local volunteer fire department and became a key leader with the group, adding his passion for action and his do-it-yourself spirit to a growing team. Gene would rise to become a Fire Captain and Fire Commissioner, responding to the calls at all hours in all weathers. He made several rescues himself, including one in which he pulled an injured person from a smoking apartment.
In 1975, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, but in true Gene Kelley fashion, did not let this dim his passions or slow down his active life. After leaving Chase, Gene had owned the Stark Equipment store and then later worked at a silkscreen company, combining his skills with machines and his talent for art, which led to yet another passion: photography. He got so good at it that his images of firefighters at work were displayed in a New York City gallery.
In 1994, he and Betty moved to Santa Barbara to join Patty and her husband Jim. In their new home, Gene continued enjoying his passions, fishing at Lake Cachuma and in the Pacific. He also found a new way to give back, as he and Betty became leaders of the Parkinson’s Association of Santa Barbara, a group that promotes fellowship and support for patients and their caregivers. They also enjoyed time with their grandchildren, both near and far, while also finding new adventures with travel to far-off places like the South Seas and Africa.
Gene’s lifelong curiosity never dimmed even as his movements were altered. His ability to press through whatever life put in his way was legendary and a life lesson to all who knew him. Once in a while, you’d hear him mutter “damned disease,” but those were whispers against a shout of fortitude.
In his final days, his family rallied to be with him; they were the true passions of his life. He is survived by Betty, his bride of 64 years to the day; Ernie and his wife Andrea Asch and their children Lindsey and John; Phil and his wife Lynda Hillman; Susan and her husband Larry Fasnacht; Patty and her husband Jim Buckley and their children Conor and Katie. On both coasts, the lives touched by Gene all responded with one overarching sentiment: He was a hell of a man.
In memory of Gene, his family asks that you consider donations to the Parkinson’s Assocation of Santa Barbara: www.mypasb.org.