Remembering Dale Kelley

Dale Kelley (left) with Carroll County Chamber of Commerce President Brad Hurley.

A man of great stature and influence with a humble spirit is hard to find. By all accounts, Dale Kelley was such a man.

A great friend of fishing, Dale Kelley of Huntingdon, Tenn., passed away in his home Saturday Aug. 20, 2022, at the age of 82.

Mayor of the Town of Huntingdon for the past 30 years, Kelley was a lover of the outdoors and instrumental in the creation of the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Lake, where he also worked diligently to bring numerous Bassmaster events to his dearly loved hometown.

Making 1,000 Acre Lake

“Mayor Kelley did more to make the creation of the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Lake become a reality than any one individual,” said Brad Hurley, president of the Carroll County Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.

Hurley and Mayor Kelley were longtime allies in the local political scene, and more importantly, dear friends. Hurley recalled the tenacity of Kelley, who championed the cause for the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Lake some three decades until the lake actually became a reality. 

“The lake was completed and opened in 2013. And then all of a sudden in 2014, we went to Birmingham, Ala., and had a meeting with Bassmaster. Later we announced that the Bassmaster High School National Championship was going to be fished at both the 1,000 Acre Lake and Kentucky Lake.”

With 22 1/2 miles of shoreline, an average depth of 20- feet and an apparent 1,000 acres of water to spread out on, this lake was the perfect venue to host the 10-team finale of the High School National Championship.

Watching it unfold

The tournament was a huge success. In 2015, the Bassmaster Junior Series was formed, and Huntingdon was once again the host, having the anglers compete on nearby Carroll County 1,000 Acre Lake. Mayor Kelley looked on humbly from the backdrop as he watched all these events unfold.

“The mayor had a lawn chair in the very back of the parking lot under a tree, and that’s where he’d watch the Bassmaster weigh-ins.”

Though Kelley may have tried to avoid the limelight, Tournament Director Hank Weldon would still give the mayor his due credit at each event. To wit the families and fans would honor him as well.

“Many times, we’d be at the weigh-in and kids and parents would come by and tell him how much they loved the town and how much they loved all the hospitality. And he’d say, ‘Brad, that’s what it’s all about.’”

Though Mayor Kelley’s health had deteriorated over the last year, his passing was still somewhat untimely, with it not even being a concern to those closest to him until recently. To the end of his time here, Kelley was committed to his hometown, his lake and the kids and families that loved going there.

“He and I had a conversation about two weeks ago. We were talking about the future and the middle school tournament and Mayor Kelley said, ‘Brad, we’ve got to keep it coming here.’ And I said, ‘Mayor, we’ll do everything we can do to make that happen.’”

More than a mayor

In addition to being Mayor of Huntingdon, Kelley served the last 10 years as the Athletic Director of Bethel University, his beloved alma mater. Current Athletic Director Brad Chappell commented on their relationship.

“The wisdom he’s been able to share with me over the years means a lot, and how he’s mentored me,” said Chappell. “Whether he knew it or not, he had a huge impact on my life.”

Succeeding a man such as Kelley can be a little intimidating. As Chappell puts it, “I can follow his footsteps, but filling those shoes is going to be hard to do.”

During his time as the AD of Bethel University, Kelley was a great supporter for the university’s nationally renowned bass fishing team. Long time fishing coach of the team Garry Mason put it this way,

“He always supported me. And that meant a lot, that I could go in his office and say, ‘Hey Dale, I’d like to do this,’ and know that he was going to back me up.”

Though Kelley was a hometown hero in several regards, he also lived a life of national significance. In addition to Kelley’s time as mayor of Huntingdon and AD at Bethel University, he also spent four years in the United States Air Force, served on the staff of three of Tennessee Governors and was an NCAA Men’s Basketball official for several years.

“He was known across the country as a great basketball official,” said Hurley. “He refereed three Final Fours. At one time, he was deemed the most powerful man in NCAA College Basketball because he was supervisor of officials for five NCAA Basketball conferences.”

These types of positions are not handed to an individual. They come only by way of hard work and earned respect.

Getting the job done

“He was a very energetic, calm and humble person. A man of great integrity,” said Hurley. “Never worried about credit.”

Kelley’s approach, according to Hurley, “Let’s just get the job done, use the resources we have and don’t get caught up in turf protection.”

The tenacity of Kelley along with his willingness to work with others and his patience with the process were all instrumental in bringing his vision of the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Lake to life.

“The lake is something unto itself in regards to Mr. Kelley,” said Chappell. “He had the vision back in the mid 80s. He wanted to build a lake for tourism and for the development of Carroll County.”

Though Kelley wasn’t an avid angler himself, he understood the importance of ecotourism long before many others caught on. If he and those working with him could create a fishery in their hometown, people would come.

“Many people would have given up long ago and many people did give up, but Mr. Kelley kept pushing that vision and trying to convince people this is what we needed,” said Chappell.

Using his diplomatic process, Kelley worked to broker deals for decades with the Core of Engineers, the EPA and other agencies, chipping away over time until finally a little headway was made.

“The lake was really about a 30-year project,” said Hurley. “But he just stayed at it. One road block would come up, then we’d go find our way around that roadblock and hit another one. But we’d just keep going. Never stopped. You look at our lake today, you look at the residential growth, you look at the quality of fishing continuing to improve. We’re just so excited about our lake and the future. And that foundation was laid by Dale Kelley.”

Big bass, big impact

Boasting regular double-digit bass and a 14-pound, 2-ounce lake record largemouth, the 1,000 Acre Lake has truly become a premier destination fishery, and no doubt Kelley has relished in its impact on his hometown with utmost humility.

“It’s producing big bass,” said Chappell. “I personally caught a 10-plus pounder out there. Every time I’m out there I think about how lucky we are that he took that bull by the horns and never let it go until he saw it to fruition. Fishing is something that’s important to me. The fact that Bassmaster is coming to West Tennessee and hosting a national tournament right here in our backyard is just really super special.”

And Chappell acknowledges the impact isn’t simply sentimental.

“He knew that a recreational lake and a fishing lake of quality would bring people to Carroll County and show people what we have to offer here. And those people would come in and stay in our hotels and pump gas at our stations and eat food in our restaurants. It has been and will continue to be a boom for Carroll County and West Tennessee.”

All those who knew Kelley are certainly grieving his absence. Hurley commented on the loss and legacy of his friend, and what the hope that his life and his example holds for those he left behind.

“His wife looked at me Saturday, with all the things she was going through, and she comes over to me and says, ‘Brad, he’s going to heaven soon, and that’s a better place than here.’ He’s in heaven now, and we’re just so thankful for the time we had with him.”