Teaching Others: From the Classroom to the Swimming Pool
BATON ROUGE - When Herman Kelly isn’t teaching at LSU, you can find him swimming at the indoor pool inside LSU's University Recreation building, or UREC.
“When I have a stressful day, when things aren’t working out, or I’m just angry about something, when I come here, this is my sanctuary. The pool is my sanctuary,” Kelly said.
Kelly is an adjunct instructor in LSU’s School of Education and College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ African American Studies. He’s been teaching at LSU for more than 20 years.
“It’s been a wonderful experience. I enjoy the kids, they keep me active, they keep me young, they motivate me. I mentioned to them that I wanted to get back into swimming and competing and they were all excited,” Kelly said.
Kelly first learned how to swim as a child, growing up in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I guess I was around seven or eight years old, when I went to a segregated pool in Jacksonville. Because, as African Americans we couldn’t swim with the white kids, we went to the segregated pool called Washington Heights,” Kelly said. “My mother told my father and my sister and I, ‘You are going to learn how to swim.’ My mother would always tell my father ‘I’m giving you two children, bring two children home,’” Kelly said.
He said his parents insisted he learn.
“I guess, as far as our culture, it was a phobia for African Americans to learn how to swim because we couldn’t swim in the pool, so we would swim in a creek or we would swim in a pond. And if you swim in a creek or a pond, you know they have undercurrents, undertows and drop-offs. So they wanted us to learn how to swim,” Kelly said.
Kelly quickly enjoyed swimming and started competing, becoming a member of his high school’s first swim team. Kelly said he helped to integrate the school, Jean Ribault High School.
“I was the third set of African American students to go to school there.”
When it was time to consider where to attend college, Kelly said his uncle shared a college catalog that showed him everything he needed.
“When I opened a college catalog, I saw Morehouse College. It said ‘swimming team.’ I said that’s where I want to go. So I went to Morehouse to swim. They were the black national champions of the 1970s. They won like 200 meets in a row,” Kelly said. “So, I tried out. I made the team. The swimming team at Morehouse was like the football team, basketball team or gymnastics team at LSU. Everybody knows you. I swam four years. I wasn’t the best swimmer on the team. But I could swim everything.”
After graduating from Morehouse, Kelly attended Springfield College for graduate school and became a pastor.
“That’s how I got to Baton Rouge. I was assigned there by a bishop in our church. I didn’t think I would be here that long, but this is like home now. Baton Rouge is like home, and LSU’s been good to me,” Kelly said.
But health concerns forced him to get back in the pool.
“In 2015, I was overweight. I had medical issues and my doctor told me if I don’t straighten my life out I’m going to have serious problems. He told me he would put me on some medication and I said, ‘No way, Doc.’ He said, ‘Okay, I’ll make a pact with you. I’ll give you six weeks to get your life together,’” Kelly said.
He swam twice a day for those six weeks at LSU’s natatorium. His health improved and his doctor no longer needed to prescribe any medications.
“My cholesterol went down. I lost 15 pounds,” Kelly said.
But Kelly kept swimming, with his eyes on swimming competitively. He started training on LSU’s campus, where former students and others on campus offered to help him.
“I met a young lady named Kit Hanley in my EDCI (School of Education’s Curriculum and Instruction) class, which is an introduction to college studies class, a few semesters back. I told her that I wanted to swim – she was on the swim team. I asked her if she would mind helping me and she said of course. After she worked out, she would let me come to the natatorium. She would stay after practice and work with me,” Kelly said.
A second student who worked as a lifeguard at the UREC, also offered some advice.
“So then I had two coaches: one at the natatorium and one at the UREC. After she would get off her shifts, she would work with me,” Kelly said.
In September 2018, he swam in three events at the State Games, wearing an LSU swim cap given to him from Hanley.
“I wear it at all my events, so people describe me as ‘the guy with the yellow cap.’ When I put this on, I think I impress some people,” Kelly said. “When I got in the pool at the State Games, I let my swimming do my talking. I was impressive. I got three gold medals, so I’m hooked now”
Most recently, he competed in the Senior Olympic games in Albuquerque, N.M.
“I did three events. I did the 50 butterfly. I was 22 in the nation in my age group. I was 18thin my age group in butterfly and I was 18 in the IM (individual medley) in my age group,” Kelly said.
When he’s not training, he’s teaching others how to swim.
“This summer, I have 33 kids in our program, the James Haines Swimming Ministry at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It’s named after my swimming coach at Morehouse. I dedicated this journey, Albuquerque, the State Games, to my parents, who insisted that I learn how to swim,” Kelly said.
Now he’s focused on achieving more in the pool and helping others swim too.
“I’ve been kind of mulling this around. I’m 65, and I am giving myself 10 years, if I stay healthy. I want to be a national champion by the time I turn 75. I don’t care what event, but that’s my goal. And then I want to swim past that. I also want to encourage African American children to learn how to swim. That’s part of my mission. Every summer my heart aches because I hear of African Americans drowning in Pensacola or Destin and I know we can do better. And I know I can do better. I know that’s a personal goal,” Kelly said.
Contact Rachel Holland
LSU Media Relations