By Morgan Bryce
Former city of Opelika Planning Department Director Jerry Kelley retired Dec. 31, marking the end of a planning career spanning 45-plus years, with 10 of those years spent in Opelika.
Deciding to leave was a difficult decision for Kelley, but one he said that he needed to make.
“Sometimes you know, when you reach a certain age, and you’ve done something long enough, it’s time to make a change, and in my case, pass the planning torch down to someone else,” Kelley said.
Kelley’s interest in a planning career began while serving as a courier in the Vietnam War for the U.S. Marine Corps, while on assignment to Australia.
“I had to go to Australia for an assignment, and I had a couple of days to decide what I was going to do and where to visit. I found out when I got there, when I arrived in Sydney, I found out that they were in the process of building the new national capital in Australia in Canberra,” Kelley said. “So I took a flight from Sydney to Canberra, because that was what interested me. I was able to see the site, and everything regarding its layout … so that’s what perked my interest in planning.”
After finishing his tour, Kelley returned to his native home of Missouri. Already possessing a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Baylor University, he wanted to further his education in the planning field, and enrolled in the master’s program at the University of Missouri in planning and community development.
Following his graduation in 1971, he and his wife Pat moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., where she could pursue a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in nursing. Shortly after their arrival, Kelley took a job with the city of Durham, working as an entry-level planner in their planning department.
In 1984, he left the city and joined Durham County’s planning department, working as their assistant planning director. Durham, the only city in the county, began meshing their operations with the county’s, and by the time of Kelley’s departure in 1996, he was planning for an area that contained a population of nearly 200,000 people.
In 1996, he and Pat returned to Missouri to be close to their elderly parents, and he took a job with the planning department in Chesterfield, a suburb of St. Louis.
Kelley would go on to work in other cities over the next 10 years – La Vergne, Tenn., Hannibal, Mo., and finally winding up in Scottsdale, Ariz in 2004.
Three years later, looking for an opportunity to move back to the East Coast to be closer to their children and grandchildren, Kelley saw an opening for the planning director position in Opelika, and applied.
He was interviewed and hired to start working March 1, 2007.
However, a medical appointment just days later revealed that Kelley had an advanced form of prostate cancer, a prevalent medical condition in his family. While undergoing treatment, he said both Scottsdale’s planning department and the city of Opelika were tremendous helps to him as he was transitioning jobs.
“My planning director in Scottsdale, who also had had prostate cancer and knew what I was going through, told me that my resignation was still on his desk, and it wouldn’t be accepted until I had finished going through all my treatments. Then I called Mayor Fuller, and told him that I had prostate cancer,” Kelley said. “I told him if he wanted to select someone else to take my place that I would understand … and he told me, ‘No, you stay there … have your surgery, get better and then come.”
After a successful operation later that spring, he and Pat moved to Opelika, and he started working on April 30.
Reflecting on his time as Opelika’s planning director, Kelley said he has seen exponential growth in Opelika and the downtown’s revitalization continue to prosper, and said with the resolution of last year’s comprehensive plan, that his outlook for the city is bright.
“There were a lot of key people involved that know the city, know their departments, and where their departments need to go. So I think there’s been a more forward vision of looking at where we are now and where we need to go, and that sets up nicely for Opelika in the future,” Kelley said. “I made a point of saying after we got here, and after things started happening … Opelika and exit 58 to Tiger Town is the place to be between Montgomery and Atlanta.”
Kelley said he and Pat’s plans are to continue living and being involved in Opelika.