In a stadium packed with people on Tuesday night, the North Forsyth High School community celebrated the leadership and responsibility of its Marine Corps JROTC cadets, passing the torch of leadership from one group of students to another at a Change of Command celebration.
But in addition to the awards, presentations and military traditions that accompany the event, the school also celebrated the legacy of the program’s senior instructor, Maj. Mac Kelly, who announced his intentions to step down in late 2018 after this school year.
In a statement after the ceremony, North Forsyth High School Principal Jeff Cheney commended Kelly for his impact on the school, stating that the instructor “has left an indelible mark on the students, our school, and the North community.”
“Over the last 23 years, Maj. Kelly has impacted countless students and cadets through his leadership and tireless commitment to excellence,” Cheney said. “Under Maj. Kelly’s direction, the North Forsyth High School MCJROTC is one of the premier programs in the nation; our students have been afforded the opportunity to compete at the national level, earn scholarships, and be appointed to U.S. military service academies.”
On Friday, Kelly said that his two decades at the school have been an incredible experience, transformative for the program, his students and himself, but over the last year, he knew that it was time to pass the torch on.
"I'm going to miss the heck out of this place; I could get emotional about it, if I was an emotional person," he said.
Born in Jacksonville, Fla., Kelly said that his career in the United States Marines took him through Vietnam as a Russian language specialist, through the Arab Israeli War and to posts in Cuba, Hawaii, Scotland and the demilitarized zone in Korea, among many other places.
When Kelly retired in 1994, he said he knew he wanted to work with students and teach, and when the position at North Forsyth became available in 1996, he applied and was quickly brought on board.
"I love working with kids," Kelly said. "The Marine Corps was the best job I ever had but this is pretty close to second. The beauty of this job is that you see a little 'punky' ninth-grade kid come in, who has no self-confidence ... and four years later that kid is leading a company of 80 cadets."
Kelly said that they had nearly 400 kids come back to North Forsyth for the ceremony from all over the country and the world, to witness his final changing of the guard and to thank him for his years of service.
“We had kids from 1997 come back,” he said. “One young man, who is like a second son to me, he flew back from Afghanistan … He came down, we spoke for about 10 minutes and then he got in his car to drive back.”
He said that he was blown away by the dedication and support shown by his past students. But after the countless hours before, during and after school, year after year, he said that it was impossible not to be entwined into the lives of his students.
"Add all that up, I probably saw that kid more waking hours than his parents," he said.
Unlike other teachers who have countless different constraints and demands placed on them, Kelly and his fellow instructors can focus solely on their student’s “character development,” get to know them as individuals and push each student to be better.
"We're fortunate in that our curriculum is so varied and we don't have end of course testing hanging over our heads like the academic teachers," he said. "But a history teacher, an English teacher, those kinds of guys, they don't get to know kids the way that we do."
Kelly said that in his time at the school, their greatest accomplishment has been forging cadets into leaders and allowing the experienced students to be role models for their younger peers.
At the beginning of the semester, he said that their freshmen will normally be shy or unsure while doing drills or giving a "current event report" in front of the class, but by the end of the year, that hesitation is gone.
"We're hired to be role models. We try to show them, 'Hey here’s how you treat people with respect, here’s how you hold people accountable,'" he said. "The students start owning their own future … They learn self-confidence and learn how to be responsible for something."