NEWPORT BEACH — Friday will be Bob Kelly's final day of school after 41 years of teaching at Newport Heights Elementary School.
"That term 'surreal' is overused, but it feels a little bit like that, you know," he said during a visit to his classroom. "It's like, jeez, this is really the end? It doesn't really feel like it."
Kelly, who has educated second-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students, started and ran Newport Heights' first computer lab in the 1980s and served as the district's science coordinator, is retiring at 66.
The long-time Costa Mesa resident and Chicago-area native started at Newport Heights fresh out of college in 1970. He went to Orange Coast College and Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he earned his undergraduate degree and teaching credentials.
An American studies major, Kelly was unsure of whether he wanted to teach until his senior year, when he volunteered in a friend's second-grade classroom.
"I loved it," he said. "I was over there every week, working with her. It was a lot of fun."
Kelly said teaching is something new each year — the chance to start over and try something different. It also gives him joy helping kids learn and watching signs of comprehension light up their eyes.
"I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else and having the satisfaction I've had out of teaching," he said.
He's been a leader and mentor on campus, said third-grade teacher Dawn Miller, who is also Kelly's former student.
"Bob has always been the one that everyone looked up to because he's been teaching for 41 years," Miller said. "So he knows what he is doing. Nobody is going to fill his shoes."
And it's not just because of his years of experience, said Principal Kurt Suhr.
"There's no doubt his experience is helpful, but it definitely isn't everything," he said. "It's his positive personality that keeps him at the top of his game and, really, as a major resource to our school community."
Although retiring, Kelly isn't completely done with Newport Heights. He plans to volunteer in his two grandchildren's classrooms.
He also plans to continue volunteering with the Environmental Nature Center and the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers and travel to national parks.
His wife of 28 years, Joyce, also has plans for him — to make sure he realizes the significance of his career.
"He's touched so many lives, and I want him to realize how many lives he's touched, and it's not just kids," she said. "It's parents, too. He's worked for so many kids and so many parents, and he's really made a difference in so many kids' lives."