Campus & Community

The gym unlocker

3 min read

Ed Kelley, a Harvard employee since 1959, has kind words for everyone

Ed Kelley doesn’t have your typical desk job. He’s got a computer, yes, though he readily admits he doesn’t much care for it. And he has a window, though it’s not for glimpsing the incoming spring, but rather the thousands of visitors to the Malkin Athletic Complex (MAC) or Hemenway Gym, where Kelley is dually employed. Those fitness seekers aren’t just strangers passing by. They’re his friends.

“You call this a job?” says Kelley, who swipes IDs, makes sure the towels are folded and stacked, and opens the gyms most mornings at daybreak. “My main job is to tease everyone.”

And he does. “I just want to warn you,” Kelley tells an incoming swimmer, “the water is wet.” Someone asks for a Band-Aid. “Fifty cents,” he says seriously, and then quips, “Harvard needs the money.”

Kelley, who turned 78 on April 12, has a mind that’s sharp as a whip — “like a computer,” he says of his memory. “You remember all the good things and let the bad things fade away.”

He greets everyone, remembers their names, jobs, and concentrations; he asks about newborn babies, family members. Gym-goers sometimes bring their children in to meet him.

Kelley has worked at Harvard since 1959, where he started out running linotype machines on a job that was supposed to last just 90 days. But Kelley, it seems, was meant for Harvard. He quickly became full time, and then the computer came along.

That milestone, according to Kelley, happened in 1982, when he was given the choice to leave or pursue something else. He became a foreman, overseeing Harvard’s grounds. That was a pivotal point in Kelley’s life. “Doing linotype, I didn’t see or talk to people,” he recalls. “When I came out on the grounds, it was a different world.” Kelley met students, faculty, and community members, and enjoyed talking to them until he retired in 1999.

But then he got bored. “Real bored,” he says. And he couldn’t stay away from campus. One chance day strolling through Hemenway, Kelley was offered a job opening the gyms in the morning. He couldn’t refuse.

“To me, it’s not a job, it’s an education. I talk to different people from all over the world every day. We have a saying over at the Hemenway Gym: When the kids come in the morning, we have to get a smile out of them to get them going.”

Around the five o’clock hour each morning, you can find Kelley walking to work. “A mile and a half to the MAC” from his home in Somerville, he points out, “but it’s a mile and a quarter to Hemenway.”

“I walk in the snow, rain — doesn’t matter to me,” he says. “When you get to be my age and these eyes open up in the morning, it’s a good day.”

Kelley says all his earnings from his gym gigs go to spoiling his eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He has been married to the same woman for 55 years, a fact he proudly proclaims. Each summer the pair travel to Maine, and come September they jet away to Aruba, where they own a timeshare.

“My wife always tells me to be quiet,” he laughs. “But no matter where I go, I talk to everyone.”