Kim & Sam Kelly
A Steady Walk
“…for the greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm its fortress.” C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed
Madison attorney, Sam Kelly was in his senior year at Ole Miss in 1983. It was March 27, Palm Sunday, and he had been to church, as was his custom, at the University United Methodist Church. After lunch, he returned to the fraternity house and got the news. His dad had become ill that morning during Sunday school. James Kelly passed away from an aortic aneurysm on the way to the hospital. He was only 56 years old.
“The week after my dad passed away, I stood up in the little Mount Olive United Methodist Church to speak and I remember saying, “God asks us to accept things we can’t begin to understand.” Those words were heartfelt. They were also prophetic to some extent. He had no idea that he would get to live that belief many times over in years to come.
It is an often repeated cliché that “Life can turn on a dime.” Sam probably knows the truth of that statement better than most. A real gut punch always comes without warning and tests one’s mettle as the furnace tests gold. It is a wise man, the kind who, like the gospel parable says “built his house upon the rock,” weathers the storm with a supernatural resilience and comes out the other side with a unique brand of winsomeness and quiet strength that attracts others like bees to honey.
Sam Kelly is that wise man.
The youngest of four siblings, Sam grew up in Mount Olive, Mississippi. Its population has hovered around 1,000 for the past 60 years, its own Mayberry at its finest. When Sam enrolled as a freshman at Jones Community College in 1980, his plan was to be a dentist—only because he had a science teacher who steered him that way. He had done exceptionally well in all science related courses.
What the science teacher may not have realized was that every teacher thought Sam had a future in their subject! He approached everything with a determined and focused work ethic. It was part of who he was more than where his passions were. He would likely have been as diligent about home economics as he was about chemistry!
At any rate, when he completed community college and transferred to Ole Miss, he “basically started over.” He went into accounting.
Following graduation, he went to work for the State Auditor’s office. Two years later, in the summer of 1985, he headed back to Ole Miss for law school. His first exam almost nixed that dream before it got off the ground.
Sam had studied hard and was sure he knew the material. He had an almost surreal experience when he went completely blank. “I couldn’t remember anything,” he says. “I spent most of the four-hour exam walking around the building!”
He didn’t exactly ace that first exam, but he got better at taking the tests. He finished near the very top of his class. Sam never forgot that humbling first experience.
A few months later, Kimberly Byrd entered law school. An English major from Fulton, she was assigned to the same section as Sam. That means they had all their classes together.
Sam says, “Kim and I have lived long enough to think there are no coincidences in life.”
In that first exam of the fall, Kim, who was also quite used to excelling in the classroom, found herself blank as she stared at the questions. Sam noticed that pretty strawberry blonde going in and out during the four-hour exam. His own experience was still fresh, and he knew exactly what was going on.
Kim had already gone back to her apartment and called her mother to say, “I don’t think law school is for me,” when Sam called to introduce himself and to encourage her. She was about an inch from packing up and going home, but the phone call led to a date which led to three years of studying hard together and becoming best friends as well as sweethearts.
When they graduated from law school, Sam went off to Washington, D.C., to clerk for a respected federal judge, and Kim, took a job with West Publishing Company, the nation’s most successful law book publishing company. She was an account executive, and her territory was the whole state of Mississippi.
Teaching lawyers and paralegals to do their research online was a whole new concept at the time, and Kim was the celebrity guru who opened the door to such a novel method for so many in the legal profession.
As soon as Sam’s clerkship ended, he hastened back to Mississippi to make Kim his bride.
Sam and Kim came from close-knit families with strong Christian roots. They were on the same page when it came to the priorities in their life together. Church on Sunday was as natural as breathing for both of them. She had grown up Baptist; he had grown up Methodist. When they married in 1989 and settled in Jackson, they joined Christ United Methodist Church.
They did not just warm a pew. They got involved in a big way. Choir, children’s ministry, Sunday school teaching, and Wednesday night activities—if the doors opened, the Kellys were likely there.
And then little Kellys began to arrive—Maggie Kate, Sam Clayton, and Anna Claire—the big sister and the little sister like the perfect bookends around son, Sam Clayton Kelly, Jr.
Kim and Sam absolutely loved being “Mom” and “Dad.” But they also loved embracing the extras that came with the territory. Sam relished the role of “coach.” He was that dad who actually enjoyed assembling a group of easily distracted little boys who had no idea about how to hold a bat, how to catch a ball, or how to play the game and patiently—very patiently—help each one develop skills and have fun at the same time.
When Sam Clayton was a nine-year-old, Sam was coaching his travel baseball team. Sam Clayton was perhaps a little less serious about the sport than his dad. It was about 100+ degrees during a game in North Mississippi, and Sam looked up to see his son sitting on the bench enjoying a big blue sno-cone, which his mother had slipped him. Sam had an initial flash of anger thinking how unserious his son was about this baseball game.
But then he had a God-ordained epiphany, realizing Sam Clayton’s goal was not trying to outperform a teammate in order to take his position. In fact, he never pouted or complained about his playing time or the lack thereof. Being part of a team was about getting to be with the friends he loved.
Sam would remember that moment later in the comments that poured in after Sam Clayton’s death. Sam Clayton had a limitless number of “best friends” because he was a best friend to many. He was secure in who he was.
The “blue sno-cone moment” probably helped Sam create many a special memory with his son over the next decade. Sam Clayton’s innate concept of relationship as the measurement for an activity’s value meant his dad could leave his own “Type A” drive behind many times in order to just cherish the moments between father and son.
Deer Camp, SEC football, following sports of every kind through every season—they did it all. Sam wouldn’t trade those memories for anything; He can thank God and a blue sno-cone for that!
A Dream Cut Short
When Sam Clayton set foot on the Ole Miss campus as a freshman, he was ecstatic. He had dreamed of that day his entire life.
The fact that two of his best friends, Walker Kelly and Mason Wilbanks, were there too, and that the three of them pledged the same fraternity, made it even better. As Sam says, “The three of them were just on fire about it all, having the time of their lives.”
Sam and Kim had been to Oxford for the first home football game a week prior to the accident. It was a perfect weekend, and they could not have been more proud of their son that day. There was every reason in the world to be thankful and to look forward to the future.
Ole Miss was playing away that next Saturday. Neither MSU nor USM had campus games either. The big group of friends who had graduated from Madison Central and begun their freshman year on different campuses came home for an impromptu reunion. There were 30 or 40 who got together that Saturday night regaling each other with their brand new collegiate experiences.
On Sunday morning, Sam Clayton, Walker and Mason headed back to campus at 7:30 in order to meet their pledge class for a church service. Sam and Kim went on to church at Broadmoor Baptist where they have been members since 2008 and where Sam taught a Sunday school class. As they were leaving worship at the end of the service, one of the ministers caught them and asked them to step into a small room off the worship center. Kim knew instantly, even before the police officer that was there spoke, that something had happened to the boys—something bad.
“Even though you have your faith, and you believe it wholeheartedly, when something like that happens it shakes you—it challenges you in a very real, significant way. Eventually, if you’re rooted in your faith like you need to be and you work your way through that, you begin to see in hindsight how you were prepared.”
Grief had brought lessons before, and for those lessons Sam was grateful. He thought about his dad’s unexpected death years before. He had also lost a sister a few years earlier to cancer. He recalled Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a hope and a future.” He had believed it in those other times of grief. Would he not believe it this time, too? As he reasoned, we get caught up on the part about God knowing the plans for a future and a hope, and we sometimes forget the part about those plans being HIS plans. He pinned his own future on that certainty that God’s plans are not random and that God would walk with him through this hard thing. He chose to trust God once again with something he could not fully understand.
He told Kim, “We’ve got one of two choices—we can just lie down in a ditch and hide, or we can say, ‘No, we’re going to take this one and we’re going to walk through it.’ I tell her all the time when we come to a difficult day, ‘Just keep walking.’”
Beauty from Ashes
On the night of the accident, Sam made the observation to Kim, “So many things that we have spent our time and energy and effort on up until this point just really don’t matter anymore.” What he meant by that he says was that even their accomplishments in a job or the community were not the important things in life in themselves. He remembered that blue sno-cone. “What matters are our relationships.”
Relationships endure, and when they are deep, they don’t really end—not ever.
As Sam was grappling with the loss of Sam Clayton, the “walk” he talked about was being noticed by others. One person who was taking note was Chris Kelly, father of Walker, who lost his life on October 30 as well.
Those Kellys—the Chris Kellys—were not church members at Broadmoor at the time although their son had been a regular because of his group of friends. As Chris tried to process the news and deal with his emotions, he thought first of his family. “How, Lord, am I supposed to lead my family through something like this? You have got to take this and show me.”
Chris says although he did not know Sam well at the time, he knew of Sam’s faith and he knew the way he had reared his son. He knew Sam was going to navigate this pain better than most, and he was going to ask him to show him how to do it well, too.
They became close friends, the kind of Christian brothers who encourage and challenge each other. Chris remembers telling his wife on the day of the accident, “We are going to find everything we can that is good that comes from this.” He adds, “Sam helped me get there.”
Mike Hossley is another person who was watching Sam and being deeply affected by what he saw. They had been longtime hunting buddies and close friends. Mike’s son, Will, and Sam Clayton had accompanied their dads to the hunting camp since childhood. The boys had killed their first deer together, shared many a man weekend at the hunting camp listening to a football game on a Saturday night and just loving being with their dads—who loved being with their sons just as much.
Mike calls Sam “a brother.” He says that it is clear that his relationship with the Lord is what gets him through the tough times, like autumn when there’s deer season and football. That is probably the time when Sam misses Sam Clayton the most. Mike also says, “Sam is the kind of guy who just has an effect on everybody he touches.”
I think it’s called real and authentic, and there is a short supply of it in today’s world.
In 2011, the Kelly’s youngest child Anna Claire was in her junior year at Madison Central. Her friends had known Sam Clayton and had spent a lot of time at the Kelly house. A few of them expressed an interest in a Bible study that next spring, and guess who was all over that—Sam Kelly.
He says, “It was a great way for me to have a connection with young men.” Sam did love his girls to the moon and back, but he missed that guy time he had had with Sam Clayton. He was thrilled and honored to take on this challenge of weekly Bible study with high school boys.
Mentoring wasn’t even something he does intentionally. It is so second nature and Sam loves it.
This is 2018, and that same Bible Study is still a big thing with the sophomore, junior, and senior boys at Madison Central. Says Sam, “We don’t shy away from any topic. I take the scripture and try to show them how it applies to where they are in life in hope that sometime in the future when they go off to college, I have encouraged them and given them something they will take with them.” Sam prepares a lesson. A mom cooks breakfast and tells him where he needs to be. It’s a great system!
But there is more—Sam was ordained as a lay minister. That office has afforded him the opportunity to baptize a few of Sam Clayton’s friends, marry a few of them, and also the sad opportunity to bury another.
Every May at Awards Day, Kim and Sam present a scholarship to a Madison Central senior whose life portrays the key qualities of Sam Clayton’s. Applicants write a 500-word essay with these instructions:
“Sam Clayton Kelly was known for the love in his heart and the smile on his face.
Why is it important to have love in your heart and not just in your head?”
None of this victorious-sounding information should disguise the fact that there have been and will always be some hard days along the way. Sam’s friend, Mike Hossley says, “Sam has the strongest faith of anybody I know. But I get to see the tough days. He’s human, and there are times when the grief feels fresh. It is his faith that gets him through.”
It’s so true. And his friends and acquaintances alike marvel at what they see—a steady walk and a sure gaze on the Savior.
Life Lessons from Our Dad
Maggie Kate Kelly Bobo, Attorney at Law
Respect everyone. My dad wears several hats—he is a Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, managing partner, Madison County school board member, general counsel for the Mississippi Association of Builders and Contractors and Mississippi Road Builders, president of the CJ Stewart Foundation, past president of the Madison County Business organization, PTO, Big Blue, Young Lawyers—the list goes on and on. In each of these endeavors, my dad encounters people from all walks of life. Whether someone is my dad’s family member, friend, colleague, student, opposing counsel, or simply an acquaintance, he treats each person with respect. In other words, he does not belittle others. My dad builds people up. I want to be that type of person, too.
Anna Claire, Sam Clayton, and I grew up in the church. My mom and dad were in the choir. My dad taught Sunday school, and my mom taught children’s choir. This provided our family with a village of support. We never questioned how much we were loved—by Jesus, by our parents, by friends. I want that for my children one day.
Our home was rarely quiet growing up. Anna Claire, Sam Clayton, and I had friends over almost every day of the week. The older I got, the more I realized what a blessing it was that our home was a safe space that kids always felt welcome. I honestly have no idea how my parents kept the pantry and fridge stocked. But I love them for it.
One of my dad’s favorite sayings is, “Keep walking.” What he means by this is, no matter what life may throw at you, never quit. I think this little quote is premised upon Hebrews 12:1-2, “…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…” Life has certainly given my dad plenty of reasons to throw in the towel if he wanted to. He lost his dad at a young age. He lost his sister. He lost his son. But despite the hardships, my dad keeps going. He keeps on loving. He’s tough as nails, even when he doesn’t feel like it. He continues the race. And he inspires me, and others, to do the same.
Anna Claire Kelly, Spanish Teacher at Tupelo High School
Growing up with parents as wonderful as mine, there are many things that stick out as memorable. Family vacations, life lessons, side-yard football games, you name it; we did it. I think the most memorable thing for me is the family vacations we took. I absolutely love looking back on our vacations and pictures and remembering all the good family times we got to spend together.
Easily put, my dad is a constant encourager, a calming voice, a voice of reason, and a Christ-like father. There isn’t a day that has gone by in my 23 years of life that I’ve ever questioned whether or not he has had my best interest at heart. He always answers the phone when I call and does everything he can to help me. He rejoices with me in life’s triumphs and encourages me in life’s hardships. He has taught me and shown me the love of Christ each and every day. I am so thankful I am his daughter.