Whenever one of Avis Kelley’s students would beat their own personal record on the track, the entire team would celebrate, regardless of whether it was a winning run or not.
That was part of Kelley’s DNA, always encouraging everyone around him to make that extra effort to improve themselves in all facets of their lives.
Kelley, the longtime Gilroy High School coach who turned the school’s track and field program into a powerhouse and who is credited with transforming countless lives through his caring demeanor, died on Dec. 21. He was 88.
Kelley, born on Jan. 12, 1934 in Bethel, New Mexico, was the youngest of six. The farming family soon after moved to Portales, and later Clovis in New Mexico.
He excelled at sports in high school, his family said, and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education at Eastern New Mexico University. It was here where he met Janetta, another physical education major, and they married in 1958. They spent 44 years together until her passing in 2003.
After graduating from college, Kelley took a teaching job in Hanford, Calif., and later he and Janetta moved to Grants, New Mexico, where he accepted a teaching and head football coaching position.
The family moved to Gilroy in 1964 after Kelley took on the position of biology teacher and head football coach at Gilroy High. He coached football from 1965 to 1969, but is perhaps most well-known for being the head track coach from 1965 up until his retirement in 1992.
Avis and Janetta created the Gilroy Invitational Track Meet, later named the Avis Kelley Invitational, which will mark 50 years in March. At its peak, the meet hosted more than 100 teams with over 1,000 participants.
During his coaching tenure, Kelley coached five State finalists, won more than 100 regional team championships, and was twice voted Coach of the Year for the Central Coast Section, according to his family.
Son Kalvin Kelley said his father remained active in the community up until 2019, when his health began to decline. He was known to frequent OD’s Kitchen in downtown Gilroy, even having his own table near its front doors, where his countless students would pass by and greet him on a near-daily basis.
“He had the best memory,” Kalvin said. “He could remember everyone’s names from the 1960s, the sports they did, how fast they ran, their parents’ names.”
Kalvin added that his father was well-known for his sense of humor and his never-ending supply of “dad jokes.”
“Our father was a humble man, who enjoyed the simple pleasures of life, who worked hard to improve his own life and those of others,” he said. “He was a loyal, generous, team-player who contributed to his family and the community he loved.”
Hundreds of family, friends and former students attended a celebration of life on Jan. 14 at Gilroy Presbyterian Church, which Kelley was actively involved with.
Gretchen Yoder-Schrock said she first volunteered as a “basket girl” at the Gilroy Invitational Track Meet as a seventh-grader, with the dream that she would one day be an athlete competing in the event. She added that the Kelleys were a major part of her life growing up, and would see them every day of the week, whether it was at school, at a track meet or at church.
She remembers running along Santa Teresa Boulevard with the track team, with Kelley driving alongside them, “shouting out the open window of his car, ‘talk less and run more.’”
“Avis had mastered the balance of pushing his athletes and being encouraging,” Yoder-Schrock said. “Avis was stern and no-nonsense while being warm and loving at the same time.”
Daughter Namra (Pourroy) Kelley said many of the online tributes to her father use the fitting word “hero” to describe him.
“I call our dad a hero because he stepped out into the unknown many times in his life and he conquered both fear and failure,” she said.
Youngest daughter Michon Kelley said her father would believe in many students when other coaches would pass them by, just because they didn’t physically look the part.
“Dad would look past that,” she said. “He would see what was inside to determine if they had what it takes. He was right on so many occasions. Those athletes became stars.”
During the Jan. 12 Gilroy Unified School District Board of Education meeting, the board paid tribute to Kelley.
“We’re so grateful to Avis Kelley for his investment in countless students in our district during his long teaching and coaching career,” Superintendent Deborah Flores said. “He had such a positive impact on so many students and families in our district, and we are truly blessed he joined our team.”
In addition to his children, Kelley is survived by his elder brother Rueben, four grandchildren and other extended families.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the “Avis and Jan Kelley Scholarship Fund,” administered by the Gilroy Foundation, P.O. Box 774, Gilroy, CA 95021, or online at gilroyfoundation.org/donate-now. These funds will provide scholarships to deserving Gilroy High School student-athletes.