David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, May 4, 2018
In a well-deserved and appropriate tribute to three native Columbians who are nearly legends of this town’s racial progress, the Parks and Recreation Department will dedicate the Wynna Faye Tapp-Elbert Memorial Amphitheater and the John and Rod Kelly Baseball Field on May 12. It is well earned.
Douglas Park, once just the playground around Douglas School and the pool, and built in the 1930s with a federal public works grant, was renovated and upgraded in the 1990s and was most recently improved with a skateboard park along Fifth Street that opened last fall.
Wynna Faye, who died in 2014, was a thirty-year employee of the Parks and Recreation Department. Among her many community activities were the Missouri Ethnic Minority Society and Judicial Law Enforcement Task Force. She was the founder of the Frederick Douglass Coalition, NAACP and the J.W. “Blind” Boone Heritage Foundation Board. She hosted a local public affairs radio program on KOPN, on which I appeared twice in about 2000. I remember her as warm and engaging and very knowledgeable about Columbia and local events.
John and Rod Kelly, the “Douglas Park baseball brothers,” started the Douglas Baseball program in 1996, providing an opportunity for kids aged 5-10, boys and girls, black and white, to enjoy non-competitive baseball. The program, which is still running today, is also an opportunity for black and white kids to see black and white coaches, umpires and organization leaders work together cooperatively.
But the Kelly brothers’ participation in sports and efforts to see that all kids get a chance to play and stay out of trouble began long before that. John retired as Assistant Principal and Athletic Director at Hickman High School in 1997. Rod, eight years younger, worked at Shelter Insurance, Mizzou Athletics and Columbia Public Schools, but may be best known for being the voice of Missouri basketball from the days of “Willie Smith to Doug Smith.” They played baseball at the Douglas playground, as it was called in their youth, and later umpired for Bill Clark, who was the local guru of sports organizing and promoting. Rod aspired to play basketball at the collegiate level, but an injury choose another path for him, pointing him in the direction of broadcasting that ultimately resulted in his being the voice of Mizzou basketball from “Willie Smith to Doug Smith” (from 1976-1991).
John Kelly recalls Faye, as she was called, from their days in the 1950s at Douglas School and recalls attending NAACP meetings with her at Sarabell Jackson’s house while in high school. He collaborated with Faye when he was a counselor at Hickman and she at the Parks and Recreation Department in providing special field trips for students who earned them to “keep them on the right path.” The city provided transportation and Kelly freed up teachers on Friday afternoons to prepare their lessons and attend meetings.
John credits Faye for proposing the baseball program at Douglas Park. Faye had developed the reputation for intervening with kids who were looking for trouble. She asked the Kelly’s to start up an affordable league for kids in the neighborhood. The program now has an active executive board, the Douglas Athletic Association, and charges kids $27 per season to participate. Some partial scholarships are available. They usually have three leagues (5-6 year olds, 7-8, and 9-10), playing a 10-game schedule.
John’s love of baseball and his manner of speaking about learning about race is contagious and full of kindness. When he was about five, he listened to the Cardinals on the radio and recalls the hoopla surrounding Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in 1947. John says he didn’t know that it was about race until later, but knew it was something notable. He began collecting Dodgers paraphernalia and went to a Dodgers-Cardinals game in 1951. His parents personally obtained Robinson’s autograph on a Cardinals program, which hangs in Kelly’s office today.
Whether the Kellys are recollecting their boyhood adventures at the Douglas playground, their family’s struggle to find a contractor to build a black family a house, their racial isolation at Mizzou or the discipline and sense of community they acquired while growing up in the Douglas neighborhood, they project a dignity like that of Jackie Robinson. The Kellys used sports to build teamwork and to further youth integration in an epoch of racial strife.
The Tapps and the Kellys are pioneers of racial progress in Columbia. The Wynna Faye Tapp-Elbert Memorial Amphitheater and John and Rod Kelly Baseball Field in Douglas Park will be permanent markers of their efforts and successes in nurturing community in Columbia. The dedication is next Saturday, May 12 at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., respectively, at Douglas Park.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.