- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - They met in the stately brick building in the North Bottoms, long after its elementary school students had gone elsewhere and Hayward Elementary had become a school for middle and high school students with special needs.

Bill Kechely landed there in 1975 (the same time he started as a volunteer coach with the Lincoln East High School football program) and Jean Manning came two years later, both young adults fresh out of college and ready to start their teaching careers.

He’d gotten the job a year after teaching adapted P.E. at a residential facility for children and adults with disabilities in Beatrice, near his hometown. She’d planned to teach elementary school, but, because she’d worked in a residential facility for mentally handicapped adults, was recruited to be a substitute at Hayward, a job that soon turned permanent.

He came to her room each day to pick up her kids for their P.E. classes and the two young teachers became friends, then something more.

In 1982, Jean Manning became Jean Kechely. The couple would go on to raise two daughters and spend more than four decades doing one of the things that drew them to each other in the first place: teaching.



The couple retired this spring, along with 86 other Lincoln Public Schools teachers with a combined total of more than 2,300 years of service - 88 of those from the Kechelys.

Connie Philippi, who spent 21 years teaching first grade at Randolph Elementary with Jean, told the Lincoln Journal Star the Kechelys have never sought recognition, but they deserve it - which is why she helped their daughters plan a retirement party pandemic-style.

The giant sign in the yard Thursday and the friends and colleagues who drove by to offer congratulations hint at their contribution to education in Lincoln.

“They are dedicated; they are humble people. They weren’t in education to move up to be the principal or anything,” Philippi said. “They just wanted to work with kids. Their lives have just been dedicated to kids.”

That dedication took them to several schools after Hayward closed in 1981.

Bill followed the older special-education students to Lincoln High and taught adapted P.E., general education P.E. and driver’s ed, then spent 17 years teaching P.E. and health at Scott Middle School - along with 45 years as a coach with East’s football program, 39 as an East baseball coach.

Jean followed her special-education students to Lefler Middle School until she moved to Randolph Elementary, where she found her dream job in a first-grade classroom.

Jean said she loved teaching special-education students, valued the lifelong relationships she developed with the students and their families, but she’d always wanted to teach first grade.

She spent a couple of years teaching Reading Recovery and older grades part-time before a first grade classroom opened up and she could share her love of reading with those just learning the skill.

“Just to teach them to learn to read and to love it, that was my draw,” she said.

Philippi, who retired the same year as her longtime mentor and friend, said Jean was the teacher everyone came to when they needed something.

“She’s amazing with special-education children,” Philippi said. “I learned so much from her, how to work with kids and what they needed when they were struggling. … She always knew what was best for kids.”

Bill’s work with special-education students led him to the Special Olympics, which he coordinated for secondary students at LPS and later for the region.

He worked hard to get more staff and students involved, directed the state competitions the last five years and took two groups of athletes to international competitions.

He loved working with the athletes.

“Kids would give you their best effort,” he said. “You see this smile on their faces, you see how much effort and how much love they have.”

He coached other athletes, too, hundreds of East High football and baseball players.

John Gingery, East’s head football coach, said Kechely could have moved up and on, but chose to stay.

“He made me a better coach,” he said.

Gingery played on the 1975 Spartan football team that won a state title, Kechely’s first year as a volunteer coach. Kechely was hired as a coach two years later, and Gingery later joined the coaching staff and the two became good friends. Gingery was a volunteer coach and Kechely was on staff when East won its second state title, in 1979.

“He is a dedicated, conscientious, honest, caring person. He truly loves what he did and he was great with kids,” Gingery said. “Because of who he is, his honesty, kids trusted him. He always had their best interests at heart.”

Leaving the East programs he’s helped coach for decades will be one of the hardest things about retirement, Kechely said.

“I wanted my football players and my baseball players to be good, but most of all I wanted them to be good people,” he said. “Athletics is just that little journey, but that total package is what kind of person you are going to be in the end.”

Jean said she’ll miss the kids and the neighborhood school tucked into the middle of Lincoln where families put down roots. She’s attended the high school graduations and weddings and first communions of many of her former students - even taught some of their children.

“There was just that connection you had,” she said. “I will miss that.”

She’s got a basement full of books now, tubs and tubs she’s collected over the years. She’s got favorites for every month, historical fiction she loved to share with her students, books for every occasion and to teach every skill and just to enjoy.

Bill’s got more than 40 years’ worth of game highlights tucked into his memory, but that’s not what he’ll miss most, he said.

“As crazy as it sounds, it may not be (what happened) on the field. It may be the grad parties I’ve gone to.”

Because the best part of being a teacher and a coach are the bonds with the students.

“I guess that’s what’s kept us coming back for 43 and 45 years,” he said.

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