Bill and Kary Kelly = Happy Helpers

North Dakota couple a fixture at major events — and it’s a labor of love

From Handball Magazine - August 2019

Bill and Kary (right) gather with Vern Roberts and super volunteers Charlie and Joan Wicker, Vince San Angelo and Mike Dau at the 2016 four-wall nationals.

Handball volunteers are a lifeblood of our sport — and a big reason USHA events have remained well organized and well attended over the years.

Volunteers help the USHA staff leverage activities and keep tournament budgets intact. And they do it for the love of the sport.

One such couple, Bill and Kary Kelly, has stood out over the years for their service to handball. That leads to some questions:

Why do they do it? What brings them back? When is it time to step down?

Born and raised in Fargo, N.D., Bill and Kary met in 1970. They attended the same grade school and high school but did not meet until after Bill returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. They were married in 1974 and celebrated their 45th anniversary this year. Both graduated from college. 

Bill was introduced to handball at North Dakota State University in 1980. He had competed in tennis growing up and was playing racquetball at NDSU when he met some handball players who invited him to give it a try. He was hooked! 

Bill enjoyed being able to use both hands as well as the challenge of hitting the ball without a racket. He started playing regularly at the Fargo YMCA and learned many aspects of the game, such as the serve, hooks and watching the ball. His interest in the game was sparked even more when he attended a handball camp in 1983 in Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Three years later, Bill entered the world championships in Kelona, B.C., where he won some matches and watched Vern Roberts win the invitational singles. Like many of us, he was impressed with Vern’s skills as well as Vern’s commitment to serving the sport.

In 2013, Bill was inducted into the North Dakota Hall of Fame for his dedication and contributions to handball. 

We asked Bill and Kary about their experiences and thoughts about the game.

Bill, where do you play nowadays?
I play two or three days a week for a couple of hours. We have a very good group of competitive players. The YMCA in Fargo has six indoor four-wall courts and three indoor one-wall courts. We also have two outdoor one-wall courts. Having the one-wall courts has brought some additional players who don’t play four-wall.

Does Kary play? 
Kary tried playing handball, but the ball hurt her hands. She enjoys being around handball events, watching and talking with other fans.

What hobbies do you two enjoy when not participating in handball? 
Bill: My favorite hobbies have been taking care of my beautiful wife, raising our wonderful son and participating in his interests growing up. I enjoy painting in both watercolors and oils. I also enjoy Sudoku and other word-scramble puzzles.

Kary: When I was younger, I enjoyed any type of water activities — swimming, boating and water skiing. When I met Bill, we both enjoyed scuba diving. Once our son was born, our family became my all-consuming hobby, watching them both grow up participating in their numerous activities. Our son has turned into a very fine young man. I also took on raising and training a beautiful and intelligent Shetland sheepdog to compete in competitive levels of obedience, agility and rally events.

The group at the Steamboat Springs, Colo., handball camp that Bill attended back in the day.

When did you two start working at tournaments? 
Bill: I volunteered 30 years ago at the four-wall nationals in Chicago. Vern introduced me to Joan and Charlie Wicker. They taught me a lot about how to run the control desk at tournaments. I still get advice from Charlie to this day. Kary and I have worked numerous national four-wall events over the last 30 years. We’ve also worked the last five world tournaments, in Winnipeg, Portland, Ireland, Calgary and Minneapolis. We’ve also helped out at the Semper Fi Tournaments in San Diego from time to time. We like to help the local organizers make their event the best they can make it. By the end of the tournament, we feel we have become part of their extended family. That is what makes the handball community, around the world, so unique.

Kary: I started after Bill was already volunteering. I wanted something to do, and you can only watch a ball hit the front wall so many times! I met Paula Dau. She managed the registration desk, so I joined her. We enjoy meeting people and making new friends with both players and volunteers.

It is a lot of work, isn’t it, Bill?
When you volunteer at a national event, you have to be ready to answer all questions from the players and their families. You become a tour guide, a registration host, a general information coordinator, a first-aid station and, when necessary, a referee. Handball tournaments are run by great organizers who rely heavily on volunteers to help them make their event a success. The players and their families deserve the best. Kary and I like to be part of the crew that makes that possible. We understand it only takes a friendly smile and the ability to ask anyone at the event, “How can we help?”

Have you become friends with your fellow volunteers?
Kary and I have enjoyed being part of each tournament, and we started a few traditions. The first tradition involved roses being delivered to the national four-wall events. The second tradition was started in collaboration with Chatten Hayes. We designed a souvenir pin for the junior players to trade at the world events. The third tradition is one Kary and I enjoy a lot.

While volunteering at world tournaments, we noticed how hard all the volunteers worked and seeing some of them going above and beyond. Kary and I decided to bring thank-you gifts to present to these hard-working volunteers as appreciation and gratitude for all their hard work.

Kary and I have had the honor and privilege of being paired up with some wonderful volunteers over the years, such as Mike and Paula Dau, Chatten Hayes, Charlie and Joan Wicker, Tom Sove, Gary Cruz, Vince San Angelo, Ray Leidich, Fred Penning, and many others.

Bill and Kary together on a social outing.

The attendance at the USHA four-wall nationals has fallen. Why? 
There are a few deterrents that may be the reason the four-wall national events are getting fewer players:

  • Time of the year.
  • Location, location, location.
  • The cost of going to a national event for a full week.
  • Not enough playing time — one-and-done in both singles and doubles. 
  • A lot of members do not feel they are good enough to play at the national level. They play great in their local events, but when they come to a national event, they get to see just how much better the talent is, and it usually ends their attendance at future national events. 

In my opinion, there should be a couple of sites that host the four-wall national event on a regular basis, just like the one-wall events in New York and the three-wall nationals in Maumee, Ohio.

Give us your thoughts on the WPH and the USHA.
After serving on the USHA board, I’ve come to an appreciation of the efforts and cooperation between the USHA and WPH. The goal is to promote handball to a wider audience. WPH is providing the public, via webcasts, live action from pro matches. They have even provided webcast promotions at four-wall and world events. The USHA and WPH are helping promote handball as a lifetime sport.

You have one-wall courts at your club.  Does your group play wallball?
Our club in Fargo plays wallball all the time on our indoor and outdoor one-wall courts. We have an annual wallball tournament in the summer called the Steve Kraft Memorial. I really have enjoyed playing in wallball tournaments. I like the fact I can control the ball better than the small ball. I have a chance to get to the ball better, it is easier to see the ball and it is easier on the hands and body.

Who is your favorite doubles partner over the years?
Steve Kraft, may he rest in peace. He was a national one-wall and world one-wall champion many times over. (Not with me!)

Bill soaks up the traditional atmosphere of one-wall in New York as he tries his hand at the game.

Steve was mostly my four-wall doubles partner. There were times we would participate in three-wall national events and one-wall national events. We did play in three world tournaments in both one-wall and four-wall events.

Steve was instrumental in teaching me the one-wall game. Because of Steve’s efforts, I have really come to enjoy the game of one-wall. Closer to home, I have enjoyed playing with some very good partners on a regular basis, such as Dennis Tallman, David Wells, and Richard Stevens, all from Fargo.

Do you have advice for the up-and-coming players who are striving to improve?
My advice to young players is to play hard, stay composed during your matches, focus on each point, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by calls that don’t go your way or the antics of your opponents. Stay cool and have fun. Once the game or match is over, leave the emotions of the moment in the court. Remember, it’s just a game. Then ask yourself: Did you have fun? Last but not least, always be available to referee matches if you have time and always pay it forward by mentoring younger players.

Who in your opinion are the best all-time four-wall players?
There have been so many great men and women players. Just check out the Hall of Fame recipients. Currently, there are some great young talents coming up. The most consistent player has been Paul Brady. The player I feel who has shown great strides over the years is Sean Lenning. He is a great player, and he pays it forward by interacting with fans and young players. When he works with young players, they gain so much more than how to play the game. They get to see a true pro giving his time to work with them.

You have traveled to play and work at so many tournaments. Any fun stories to tell?
Steve Kraft graciously asked me to be his doubles partner at the one-wall nationals in New York. He asked me to come to New York a week early and he would help me get ready to play. Steve took me around to different parks and introduced me to a lot of New York one-wall legends.

These guys were great. They were very patient and provided a lot of good advice. Steve did his best to prepare me for my one-wall experience. All in all, it was a great experience, and I will always remember my time with Steve in New York along with some of the great legends of the game.

On another note, Kary and I have experienced some great moments volunteering at world events in Ireland and Calgary.

In Ireland, we asked the organizing management if they needed some help. They said sure, and from that point forward, we were in the trenches for two weeks working side by side with some great volunteers. This was Ireland’s biggest turnout for a world tournament, and there were close to 2,000 players who played in events over the next two weeks.

When the worlds were held in Calgary in 2015, we went up there and asked if they needed some help. Once again, we were in the trenches for two weeks working with some fantastic volunteers. By the end of the two weeks, we felt like we were part of the extended Canadian handball family.

We were taken by surprise at the banquet when the tournament staff bestowed on Kary and I the ceremonial “white hat” honor for our time helping them during the tournament. It was quite the honor, and we have the hats ready to go when we travel back to Calgary.

Thank you for volunteering and for sharing your experiences with us. Any final thoughts?
Kary and I say thank you to all the volunteers who dedicate their time to help out at tournaments around the world. These volunteers go about their duties, working hard to make the event the best it can be for the players and their families. To all of you, we say thank you for all you do to make handball fun.

Bill stands in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a visit to Washington, D.C.

The Kellys have richer lives for the time they have given to our sport. And handball players’ lives are richer because of their efforts. Volunteering is hard work and a special avocation for those who take it on.  As Bill says, we are all part of the extended handball family.


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