Spend a little time with Bob Kelley and it’s easy to believe 70 is the new 50. Truth is, most 50-year-olds would have trouble keeping up with him.
This self-described “wild, wacky and weird individual” does the aging thing a little differently from most. He competes in marathons and triathlons, hikes, fishes, kayaks — and cooks up a mean cioppino. He’s written a book, “Crossing the California High Sierras,” and stars as “Marmot Bob” in fundraisers to save the golden trout. He’s even started taking piano lessons at age 74.
“I do everything I can to avoid what I call the Death Spiral,” Bob says. “You know, talking about your health with your friends all the time — sitting around waiting to die.”
Sitting around is not part of his routine. Slogging waist-deep through mountain streams and challenging the Pacific with a fishing pole in his hand is what he loves to do. So is running in the San Francisco Marathon. And shagging baseballs for his beloved San Francisco Giants.
Since 2011, Bob has held the coveted position of “Balldude” with the Giants, a volunteer job that he says is “the biggest thrill of my life.” He wears an official team uniform bearing prized No. 24 — Willie Mays’ number — when he takes the field on his assigned game days at AT&T Park. Sometimes he works at first base, others at third, going after foul balls and then handing them over to excited young fans. That’s the hardest part, he says, making a quick decision about which child gets the ball. “Somebody is going to be disappointed.”
Thousands of fans apply to become a Balldude, he says, and only 60 get to the tryouts. It took him a couple years to become one of the lucky 22 ranging in age from 55 to 80 to make the final cut. He also does a lot of fundraising for Giants’ charities, including selling raffle tickets at games. One time, he netted $40,000 by the fifth inning for a women’s shelter.
At a recent game, Bob gave out eight baseballs and playing cards to the children. “I love doing that so much. My friend Mark Gardner, the Giants’ pitching coach, kept giving me balls. I gave one to a little boy about 5 years old. He was so happy he cried, and then I started crying. I had to hide my face.”
Bob’s grandfather, “a true Irishman,” arrived in the United States from Belfast with a skill for gardening that has carried down through the family. Bob’s dad, George Kelley, was a well-known plant propagator in Los Angeles who came to the Bay Area in 1937 to head up landscaping for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island. That job earned him an honorary degree from U.C. Berkeley and what followed was a career “working 24/7” as a landscape architect. One of his major projects was the Stonestown Shopping Center in San Francisco. Bob spent time working in nurseries with his dad and uncle, and today continues to enjoy gardening at his home on Lodge Hill.
During his youth, Bob’s family reserved Sundays for church in the morning and baseball or football games in the afternoon. “I was raised with the Giants and 49ers,” Bob says. He has been to two Super Bowls, worked for Willie Mays at the World Series, and has a slew of posters, pennants, T-shirts and photos to prove it.
Baseball and other sports saved him from the mean section of South San Francisco where he was born and raised. “Baseball kept me from becoming a wino or stealing cars,” Bob says. He played sports all through school, graduating from Lincoln High School in 1958. He worked as a recreation director for the City of San Francisco and played baseball in the summer until a serious injury put him on the sidelines.
“My parents’ dream was for me to go to college,” Bob says. He entered a two-year program at San Francisco City College to become a recreation leader and worked at a Hayes Valley playground — a gritty place surrounded by barbed wire and managed by a supervisor who had her teeth knocked out on the job. “But I loved it coaching those kids,” Bob says.
It was a time when “junior college” became “community college” and, along with being men’s college president at San Francisco City College, Bob was the first student president of California’s community college association. He transferred to Fresno State College in 1960 and was the school’s first president of the newly formed recreation club. That earned him a spot on the state’s 5,000-member Park and Recreation Society board where, you guessed it, he became the first student president. He continues to be a member and raises funds for the society today.
After college, Bob’s love of sports and his leadership skills led to a job as director of the fledgling recreation department at UC Santa Barbara, where he inaugurated 30 different sports, including rugby, soccer, surfing and more. His programs were well funded with money from the former football program that the students had voted to cancel.
When his funding was transferred to the school’s new multicultural program, Bob moved on to take a job as recreation director for the city of Madera where he wrote $50 million in grants that turned a struggling program into a thriving department.
Bob advanced to city manager and developed a series of community services departments to assist people in need. His work with the aged earned him a trip to the White House to advise President Nixon on services for seniors, including Meals on Wheels programs. Along with running a city, Bob also set up workshop programs for handicapped adults where they could learn skills and earn money crafting jewelry, making beehives and finishing furniture, among other jobs.
In the early 1970s, Bob met a couple of disabled Vietnam veterans who added their voices to help change the course of history for the handicapped in this country. The pair of U.S. Army first sergeants came to him to talk about problems they were having going into buildings because their wheelchairs couldn’t go up stairs or fit through doorways. Getting into bathroom stalls was impossible.
Bob worked with them to document the problems and come up with solutions like wheelchair ramps, widened doorways and slings that work as lifts. He was getting his master’s degree at the time from Fresno State and took this on as an independent project.
When he introduced the men to the Madera City Planning Commission and they relayed their stories, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. “I’m not an architect or an engineer,” Bob says. “I just wanted to make people aware.” And so he did. The city and then Fresno County responded by ordering changes to building requirements.
After Madera, Bob worked as city manager and chamber of commerce director for Kingsburg, a Swedish community south of Fresno, where he launched tourism as the town’s saving grace. In essence, he inspired a Solvang-like atmosphere to create one of the first themed cities in the U.S.
Bob and his wife of 50 years, Lu-Ann, retired to Cambria where they are active in many organizations. But family is their top priority. They are proud of their three children and seven grandchildren who all share the family tradition of staying active. Bob has even created a backyard recreation center where they compete in archery, ping-pong, darts and more for the Tule Tribe as part of YMCA Indian Guides. “Family is everything to me,” Bob says.
That family, no doubt, includes an unimaginable number of grateful veterans, elderly, recreation enthusiasts and little kids sitting in a major league ballpark hoping for a foul ball to come their way.
Congratulations, Balldude. You are the Big Time.