A spot that looks something like a handprint marks the top of the desk. If you ask him about it, Phil Kelly, D.A., professor of English at Gannon University, will tell you the story of how his hand rubbed some of the furniture stain off his desktop — which he stained and assembled himself — and he decided to leave it there.
He can also tell you about the evolution of the Waldron Campus Center as the socialization hub of campus, the 76 windows cut into the Palumbo Academic Center when Gannon bought it and how interim president is one of the best jobs on campus.
“If you ever get the opportunity to be interim president, take it,” Kelly advised. “The most onerous task the president does is long-term planning and if you’re only in for six months, you’re off the hook.”
In his 48 years serving Gannon, Kelly wore numerous hats, including ombudsman, interim dean and provost of the then College of Humanities, chair of the English department and mentor for new faculty members in all of Gannon’s departments.
He has also seen the university change and grow over the years. He said the traffic students associate with Waldron is a more recent development.
“Before we had Waldron, if somebody asked you ‘What’s the center of campus?,’ you’d be hard-pressed to answer,” Kelly said.
When Gannon purchased the former department store that became Palumbo, Kelly said he gave the architect directions to offer a gathering place for students outside of classes.
At one time, the open spaces on the third and second floors of Palumbo were the social hubs of campus.
Despite his experience over the years, Kelly said he was always thankful to return to the English department, a sentiment reflected on his shirt whose embroidery reads “Gannon University English Department” over the chest.
“The English department is a good home,” Kelly said.
From the looks of his desk and bookshelves brimming with reading material, one may never guess Kelly is leaving this home in December. But the tell-tale boxes in the corner of his office say otherwise.
Before completing his time at Gannon, Kelly will deliver Sunday’s commencement address. He said Keith Taylor, Ph.D., Gannon University president, asked him over the summer to speak at graduation.
“I was absolutely surprised,” Kelly said.
In fact, he said he was so surprised he wasn’t sure he would give the speech.
“But as time went on, I thought ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that,’” Kelly said. “I was pleased I was asked and glad to have the opportunity.”
Kelly said he plans to encourage graduates to think of their professional life in the long-term.
“Of course, maybe that’s the kind of advice you get from someone who’s been working 50-some years,” Kelly said. “I encourage people to be patient with themselves.
“I was 22 when I graduated and 25 when I started here; I had a lot to learn,” Kelly admitted. “Gannon has provided me an opportunity to grow and develop and it’s been a good career.
“It’s been a good life for me.”
Kelly said he chose Gannon because he could tell it was a good place and he was impressed with the university, not to mention it was close to his native Ohio.
Out of six other interviews, Gannon sent him a contract shortly after his interview and that prompted his decision to cancel the other ones and take the job.
Kelly said his favorite part of working at Gannon was teaching students every semester.
“I’m looking forward to retirement, but I still haven’t come to terms with the fact I will not be in a classroom every day,” Kelly said.
One of Kelly’s classes is the English oral exam class, which guides English majors through their thesis paper and presentations. This is his final semester teaching it.
Leigh Tischler, a senior English major, said Kelly has a way of instilling confidence in students by delivering assignments with a sense of calm.
“He’s the kind of professor that assigns you a massive paper, but makes you feel the whole time like you are absolutely capable of completing it,” Tischler said.
Tischler said she also enjoys Kelly’s stories from his time at Gannon because they are useful.
“They usually start off randomly or irrelevant and then out of nowhere he pulls a beautiful lesson that’s totally applicable to your own life,” Tischler said.
The No. 1 thing Kelly said he is looking forward to is celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Judy, on Feb. 3.
“That’s the first big piece of business to take care of,” Kelly said.
He and his wife decided to stay in Erie, but hope to spend more time with their children and grandkids. One of these activities will be attending Grandparents’ Day at his granddaughter’s school in Indianapolis.
“We were crushed when we couldn’t go, but we will go next year,” Kelly said. Staying in Erie will keep the Kellys close to their son and his children, said Kelly.
“Erie’s as much of a home as I’ve ever had,” he said.