Brother James Kelly, president of Mount Saint Joseph High School for the last decade, died of prostate cancer early Saturday at his order's residence in Irvington. He was 64.
In a letter he wrote to students and parents in October, he quoted the writings of St. Paul: "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith." He also said, "When I can't teach, I will know it's over." He taught until the middle of last month.
Born in Worcester, Mass., he earned a bachelor's degree in Latin and Greek from the Catholic University of America, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He had master's degrees from Wesleyan University and Saint Joseph's College.
Academics did not always come easily to him. He told the story that he failed Latin and religion in high school.
"His father, an Army general, told him he had to crack down on his school work. He wound up becoming a classics major and graduating from college with honors," said Brother Lawrence Harvey, superior general of the Xavarian religious congregation, who lives in Baltimore.
Brother James credited teaching nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, in high school as helping him overcome his laziness. When he decided to enter the Xavarian Brothers in 1967, his parents opposed his choice. They said they would be held responsible for his having taken religious vows.
He taught at Saint John's High School in Shrewsbury, Mass. In a memoir, he said that other Xavarians instilled in him the "necessity of demanding academic discipline and accepting nothing less from students than their very best effort."
Friends recalled that his conversational manner was direct, but infused with "majestic wit and wisdom." When he was 23, he had an attack of appendicitis followed by a dangerous infection. Another brother said to him at the hospital, "Well, Brother Jim, you are going home to Jesus." He looked back and said, "Like hell I am."
He later held posts in Middletown, Conn. before being named president of Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Ky., in 1993. In 2001, he came to Mount St. Joseph in Irvington, where he became the second-longest-serving president.
"He was loved by the parents because of the practical advice he gave in a series of monthly letters to them," said Brother Lawrence. "One of his classic lines was the advice he gave seniors: 'Don't do anything that will break your mothers' hearts.'"
Brother James began and ended the school day at Mount St. Joseph's front door, where he greeted and said good-bye to many of its 1,100 students.
"He was short, and he himself would admit to having a bit of a Napoleon complex," said Brother Lawrence. "But he also had humility, and if he ever overreached, he apologized."
He characterized Brother James as being a "wonderful teacher — but a difficult teacher." He taught British literature and required his students to turn in a blank cassette-type tape or recording device with their papers. In addition to a grade, he also gave detailed voice appraisals of their work on the tapes.
"His remarks were totally unfiltered and he could land on bad grammar or a student's lack of understanding of the topic," said Brother Lawrence. "He could be reprimanding one minute and the next he'd have his arm around your shoulder."
Earlier this year Brother James honored at a Xavarian school in Massachusetts. A banquet program noted, "His world revolves around his students – they are his purpose and his life. Not all headmasters and presidents continue to teach, but Brother James has always insisted that he instruct at least one junior English class," the program said, adding that even after his diagnosis with cancer, he used Skype to reach his classroom.
"He said that teaching helped him understand students and that he could never fundraise effectively unless he could tell the story of students today," said Brother Lawrence.
He was a close follower of history, the history of Mount St. Joseph and the brothers who taught there. On his Monday morning remarks to students, he also included historical reflections on the death anniversaries of those who had taught at the school.
On Nov. 20, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien awarded him a papal honor, a cross with the inscription, "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice."
Funeral services will be at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5300 N. Charles St., Baltimore.
Survivors include a sister, Patricia Kelly of Dorchester, Mass.