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Henry R. "Mr. Music' Kelly, taught generations in Tarpon

He was called "Mr. Music," and his favorite instrument was "the one that was played well."

For 28 years, Henry R. Kelly taught vocal and instrumental music to young Tarpon Springs students. On Tuesday (Feb. 1, 2000) the popular teacher died at home under the care of Hospice of the Florida Suncoast after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

Three years ago, current and former music students led by Tarpon Springs High School band director Kevin Ford performed a tribute concert for the legendary band director.

On that day in April 1997, the retired teacher known for his stern approach was at the mercy of his former students. He had to sit still and be quiet while Sponger alumni and students honored him with speeches and songs in a tribute much like the finale of the movie, Mr. Holland's Opus. As with Mr. Holland, Mr. Kelly's opus wasn't so much about a musical score as it was the hundreds of students he had touched.

Mr. Kelly not only was band and choral director at Tarpon Springs High, he also taught music at North Pinellas elementary schools. By the time he retired to gardening and woodworking in 1974, Mr. Kelly had forged a music program to make the city proud.

"Mr. Kelly pioneered music at Tarpon High," Ford said Tuesday. "If it wasn't for his devotion and commitment, we wouldn't have the luxuries we have now. He had a lasting impact on his students."

Ford also honored Mr. Kelly's family for "the sacrifices they made."

"A lot of time he spent with his students should have been family time," he said. "There were many evenings when he wasn't at the dinner table because he was at the band hall. But his family was patient."

Under Mr. Kelly's direction, Tarpon Springs Sponger bands won state competitions and received superior ratings in local contests. The high school also regularly sent students to state choral competitions.

He started with 28 band students in 1946. By 1971, the band, bedecked in maroon suits with white trim and military-style dress caps,

played for Gov. Reubin Askew's inauguration.

Mr. Kelly was a saxophone player in his seventh-grade band in McKeesport, Pa. In 1936 he earned his degree in music as a clarinet major. During World War II, he was commander of the U.S. Army's 27th Infantry Division Band, stationed in the Pacific. This left him with a fondness for precision marching that he later drilled into generations of Tarpon Springs High students.

Soon after moving to Tarpon Springs after the war, Mr. Kelly met his wife, Katherine, a physical education and civics teacher at the high school. They had three daughters, all of whom played in the band. During the 1950s, Mr. Kelly was named Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.

He was so strict that it is a wonder people remember him fondly, former students have said.

"He told you exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it done," Charles Cheeseman, one of Mr. Kelly's early students and now choral director at Tarpon High, has said. "While he was demanding of the whole band, he was encouraging to individuals. He would point out the kids who were working hard. I wouldn't be doing what I am now if he hadn't developed my love of music and teaching."

The band director launched the careers of many musicians, from local singer-songwriter Bertie Higgins to Jim Norman, president of Warner/Reprise Nashville records.

Mr. Kelly was a member of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral and Elks Lodge 1719, both of Tarpon Springs, a past president of Pinellas County Band Masters Association, a former member of Tarpon Springs Rotary and a member of the Retired Teachers Association.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Katherine; three daughters, Lucyanne Robinson, Little Rock, Ark., Leah Gentry, Tallahassee, and Sylvia League, Clifton, Va.; four grandsons, Brian Gentry, Miami, Kelly Robinson, Boston, Patrick League, Charlottesville, Va., and Michael League, Clifton, Va.; and several nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, and great-great-nieces and great-great-nephews.

Visitation will be Friday at Vinson Memorial Chapel, Tarpon Springs, from 6 to 8 p.m. with a Trisagion service at 7 p.m. Funeral services will be Saturday at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral with burial following at Cycadia Cemetery. The family requests that donations be sent to Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, the Philoptochos Society, the Tarpon Springs High School music program or a favorite charity.

_ Information from St. Petersburg Times files was used in this report.