Jake Kelly lived his life to the fullest and I could sit here all day recounting the stories I have about him, but none seem as important as remembering who he really was and the impact he had on people. In his short 30 years on this earth, he was able to touch and inspire more people than most of us can imagine to do in our own lifetime. He approached every situation with honesty, integrity, and humor. I hope that the humor is what he is remembered for the most because even as I sit here and write about him, I can’t help but smile and laugh at how he turned the most intense situations into a comedy. He will always be missed, never forgotten, and will continue to inspire.
Jake was born on September 17, 1981, to Tom and Michele Kelly. He was a fairly healthy baby, but was born with a congenital heart defect known as tetralogy. At nine months old, the brave Jake underwent a surgery in order to repair his condition. He recovered very successfully and was allowed to live the next fifteen years with no restrictions.
In 1984, Jake became a big brother; I was born in February and little did he know the impact and influence he would have over me. At the young age of two Jake became my mentor, my best friend, and as I got older, my role model. Jake went on to make more friends when he started four year old kindergarten at J.E. Jones Elementary School in Cudahy. Jake moved on to first grade at General Mitchell where he befriended Adam Behnke. From that point on, Jake and Adam became inseparable. Jake went on to the Cudahy Middle School and then to the Cudahy High School, where he graduated in 1999. At the age of fifteen, Jake had another heart surgery. This time, they placed a pulmonary valve and as was expected, Jake recovered quickly, healthily, and with a smile on his face.
Throughout his childhood, Jake participated in baseball, golf, basketball, and various intramural teams. Not only was he good at many sports, he was also able to coach each of those sports. At the age of fourteen, Jake and Adam started coaching basketball and baseball at the YMCA. Coaching eventually led to running summer camp programs through the YMCA. This was the first moment that everyone began to see the way Jake was able to connect with and inspire children. He was a phenomenal coach due to his knowledge, patience, compassion, and genuine care for the kids he coached. When he talked about his job, you could tell in his face that he was excited to be doing it and he considered himself lucky to have the opportunity. I can’t remember a day growing up with Jake where he wasn’t trying to get me to improve upon something in my life. Most of the time it was baseball, but as we got older, he pushed me to be a better person. I think that most people in his life would agree with me when I say that he was accepting of everyone’s’ differences, but when a conflict presented itself, he effectively and creatively resolved it.
After graduating high school, Jake went on to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He started out in pre-med, but quickly changed his major to education. Our parents were very proud of his decision to become a teacher because they knew it was his true calling. During college, Jake continued to coach at the YMCA, but also became a campus security guard. I remember bringing Jake dinner while he was working and we would do homework together; actually, I did homework and he read the newspaper. Jake continued to be active in extracurricular activities into adulthood. Jake graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee in 2005.
Jake’s first real job took him to Atlas Preparatory Academy where he became a well respected staff member for the next 3 years. This is also where Jake met the love of his life, Jessica (Nemoir) Kelly. Jake started out as a teacher at Atlas. He quickly gained the respect of students, parents, and fellow staff members and was promoted to the Dean of Instruction/Students. One of his fellow staff members, Angela Hartwig, told me, “he was a strong individual to have in this position (Dean of Instruction/Students) because he was always so fair. Students and parents rarely became upset with him when he had to deliver news about suspensions or detentions because he always approached them with a calm tone and let people know that tomorrow was always a new day.” Jake had the ability to communicate appropriately with everyone he came in contact with. He was non-judgmental and very accepting of everyone; he didn’t view flaws the way most do, he viewed them as areas to grow. Angela also told me that, “with the staff, he was one of those rare coworkers who makes you want to be a better version of yourself.” When you were around Jake, you couldn’t help but want to become a better person, a person who may someday measure up to the same amazing person that was Jake Kelly. I’m still inspired to be the better version of myself because of Jake.
After dating for a few years, Jake finally proposed to Jess. The proposal took place in downtown Milwaukee, on the ice skating rink. Jake pretended to fall and Jess rushed over to his side to help him. Instead of standing up, he got down on one knee. Jess said, “Yes,” and they were married in Milwaukee on July 16, 2010. I can’t remember a day where I have seen my brother any happier then he was on their wedding day.
After Jake parted ways with Atlas Preparatory Academy, he went on to teach fourth grade at the Waukesha S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Academy. He truly enjoyed being able to teach students who shared his similar passions. Jake was a Discovery Channel junky. This past fall, he began to teach seventh grade. This was another thing that he showed excitement for. In mid-October, I went over to Jake’s house to have him help me with my Advance Statistics class. I told him I was good at statistics in undergrad, but the graduate level stuff was like Latin. He assured me we’d get to the bottom of. When I showed up with my books in tow, he looked at me a little crossed eyed, but encouraged me to get the assignment done because the Brewers were playing in an hour. We persevered through the assignment and when we finished, he told me he could think of at least four of his seventh graders that would be able to complete the assignment in less than thirty minutes. I told him that I’ll have one of them tutor me in the future. This is a great example of Jake’s style; he was never afraid to admit when he didn’t know an answer or wasn’t able to help someone, but he still made the attempt. He was very confident in all of students’ abilities and I admire him for that. It takes a big person to admit when they are wrong, but an even bigger person to admit they are wrong to a seventh grader.
In July of 2011, Jake underwent his third open heart surgery. He recovered more quickly than anyone could have expected, including his doctors. After about a week, he was home and watching the Milwaukee Brewers. He slowly began to return to his normal life filled with activities, family, and friends. This past fall, Jake returned to his fall ball team and hit a homerun during his first game back. As time passed, restrictions were lifted and we were able to throw a surprise 30th birthday for him in September. As always, Jake had a smile on his face and was glad to be around friends and family joking and laughing.
On October 24, 2011, about a week after all restrictions were lifted, Jake took his dog Ruby for a run on the Hank Aaron Trail near his house. A runner found Jake with Ruby by his side; Jake did not return home that night. After I received the news, I was standing outside and looked up to the night sky and saw brilliant colors that filled me with calmness; it was the northern lights and I knew Jake was safe.
I will never be able to express how much Jake has impacted me and I know that there are several others that feel the same way I do.
Since Jake passed, a day has not gone by without someone telling me a story about Jake and a lesson they taught him or a problem he helped them with. Each day, I realize something new about myself that he influenced. Jake had one of the most unique and inspiring takes on life and every day, I aspire to be more like him. He saw the good in everyone and did his best to make sure everyone knew he cared. He never took anything for granted and appreciated everything that came his way. He never took anything too seriously and never got upset with anyone. This challenge in my life has taught me one very big lesson that I hope everyone will think about; make sure to tell those you care about that you are proud of them, you appreciate them, and most of all, that you love them. Those are three things I will never be able to say to my big brother again, but I know that he knew how I felt and how I respected him.
Jake will forever be missed, forever be loved, but never forgotten.
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