By Jason Martin
Dale Kelley said, “Some men like to hunt or fish. I chose officiating basketball as my personal pursuit.”
Over the next fifteen years of his officiating career, he logged over 20,000 miles a year either driving or flying. On average he officiated 80 college games a season. He either worked or officiated in several Division I conferences including the SEC, OVC, the Metro Conference, the Atlantic Conference, the Southwest Conference and the Sunbelt Conference.
In his fifth year, he was invited to officiate in the NCCAA Division I tournament. His first nationally-televised game was in Atlanta, Georgia between UCLA and Tennessee.
“Within my seventh year of officiating, I became the SEC representative to the Final Four, held at the Checkerdome in St. Louis in 1978. I was 38 years old. The tournament officials were selected by grades assigned to previous games, and I received an outstanding score in the East Regional title game between Duke and Villanova the previous Sunday afternoon. Only one official from each of the regional games is selected to referee the Final Four and grading is based on the mechanics of officiating, rapport with players and coaches and consistency of situational calls.
“Assigned to the Duke and Notre Dame semifinal with 18,000 in attendance and several million more watching on television, I must confess to a fair amount of nervousness before the game. The apprehension dissipated, however, as soon as we tossed the opening jump ball into the air and play began. Following the game, sports commentator Al McGuire states this seminal proved to be one of the best-officiated championship games he had witnessed.”
Dale went on to work nine consecutive NCAA playoffs and three Final Fours (1978, 1980 and 1981). He later stated, “Although the excitement and responsibility of being a Division I basketball official was reward enough, I discovered that officiating helped me overcome a characteristic shyness that remained since childhood.”
In 1974, Dale decided to reenter the political arena, this time running for a seat on the Huntingdon Special School District Board of Education. He followed it up two years later with a seat on the Huntingdon Town Council.
“Although my pursuit of NCAA basketball officiating took me from one major city to another across the United States, my heart remained with my hometown of Huntingdon and my fellow residents of Carroll County. Public service through political involvement became the means by which I could address the needs of my community as a whole as well as the people I came in contact with on a daily basis.”
In 1978, Dale decided to run for the Tennessee State Legislature. This proved somewhat of a difficult task as Carroll County was and still is divided into two separate districts. Instead of running in the 74th District which contained Huntingdon, he decided to run in the 72nd District.
In his autobiography, Kelley explained, “Although I and my family continued to reside at our home on Tara Lane where my children spend most of their childhood, I resigned my position on the Huntingdon school board as well as the town council and changed my voter registration to the Palmer Shelter precinct based upon my ties to family property in that area. Although questioned by my opponent, it was a legal move as state law solely dictates residency in the county to represent either district rather than maintaining a resident with the 72nd or 74th.”
After all the votes were tallied, Dale was declared the winner by a mere 112 votes. In January 1979, took his seat in the legislature while Lamar Alexander was “secretly sworn into the governorship.”
He spent six years in the state legislature representing the 72nd District. He sat on numerous committees of influence during this time and supported numerous pieces of legislation. Gerrymandering by the Democratic Party led to Dale’s decision not to run for a fourth term. Instead, he took an appointment in Governor Alexander’s cabinet.
His first appointment was to the position of Commissioner of Employment Security (handled unemployment insurance and benefits for state residents). Dale’s commissioner status quickly moved from Employment Securities to the Department of Transportation.
“As Commissioner of Transportation, I was in an enviable position to help my local community of Huntingdon and Carroll County, and I did not hesitate to do so. Good roads are valuable for potential employers… I brought blacktop to as many miles of gravel roads as possible through the county, and I doubled the percentage of county road miles designated as part of the state road system in order to acquire state funding for upkeep and bridge work.
“One of the first projects on the list for our area was the widening and straightening of Highway 22 stretching from Huntingdon to McKenzie. Statistics revealed this to be one of the most dangerous stretches of roads within the state of Tennessee based upon accidents per usage reports. Within the limits of Huntingdon, I widened Main Street from Thomas Park eastward to the outskirts of town and procured funding to complete the US-70 bypass that encircled the town. I also procured funds for providing a 300,000-foot-paved access road to the Carroll County Industrial Park developed north of Huntingdon.”
In 1986, as Commissioner of Transportation, Dale announced plans for the construction of SR-840 which would serve as an alternative route south of Nashville. Construction began in 1991 and was not completed until 2012.
It was around this time, Dale’s court-officiating shifted to an administrative role. He became the coordinator of officials for five NCAA conferences after the 1984-1985 season. His first act as coordinator was the recruitment of good officials. Dale along with hired observers took notes at numerous games to evaluate game officials. This led to the creation of officiating clinics for current and new referees.
With his time in the Tennessee State Legislature, serving as Commissioner of Transportation and his position in NCAA officiating, Dale looked at the idea of bigger things. In 1987, he considered launching a run for the United States Senate against Jim Sasser.
“While I considered running for the Senate, I had no selfish goals. Public service was my intent. My failure, however, to create a message for the people of Tennessee that differed from the one already offered by incumbent Jim Sasser did not set me apart from the crowd. The Democratic Party in this time period remained strong throughout the state and voters continued to support Sasser as their senator. Campaigning against him would prove an uphill battle. Although a team of analysts developed a ‘Run and Gun’ campaign strategy that found me talking with people in one small town after another, listening directly to my constituency, and interacting with the electorates as much as possible, I had no distinctive message or platform to distinguish myself from my opponent.
“My timing was wrong for election to the Senate, so I dropped out of the race in January of 1988.”
When Dale left Nashville following the end of Alexander’s second term in office, he returned to Huntingdon. Unhappy with the fiscal and aesthetic shape of Huntingdon, he began to miss his service in politics. This led to five years on the Carroll County Commission before campaigning for Huntingdon Mayor in 1992.
Some feared Huntingdon was not ready for someone like Dale Kelley at its helm. “I would be aggressive as I initiated changes necessary to run Huntingdon from economic decline to a viable and stable community,” once stated about taking office as mayor.
Kelley served as mayor of Huntingdon from 1992 until he died in 2022. This thirty-year led to numerous changes and improvements for Huntingdon. This included the construction of the
Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center (named for Dale’s high school classmate), various downtown facade improvements, and the development of the Carroll County Watershed Authority that parlayed into the construction of Tennessee’s second-largest man-made lake.
After various bouts of health issues, Dale Kelley died at his home on August 20, 2022. He is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery, in Huntingdon.
Other honors and distinctions held by Dale include: serving as a member of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission under Governor Don Sundquist; and Senior Advisor and Special Assistant to Governor Bill Haslam; past president of the West TN Mayor’s Association; served on the TN Municipal League Board of Directors, TN Municipal League Risk Management Pool Board, and TN Municipal Bond Fund Board; recognized as the 2008 Tommie Goodwin Mayor of the Year Award for the State of Tennessee presented by the Tennessee Municipal League; member of the Bethel Athletics Hall of Fame, the TSSAA Hall of Fame, the Carroll County Sports Hall of Fame, and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame; 1985 Bethel College Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award winner; first recipient of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce’s Carroll Countian of the Year honor; former Deacon at Huntingdon First Baptist Church; and Athletic Director at Bethel University.
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