by ELLA HIPLE - October 28, 2020 - In Memory of Liam and Reece Kelly
The Kellys have always encouraged growth and exploration, and the Kelly boys spent much of their free time in the air, strengthening their love for flight. Many young people have no idea what they want to do with their lives, but Liam and Reece did. They explored their passions each and every day.
Liam Patrick Kelly and Reece David Kelly were taken too soon. To receive the news that two boys, sons, teammates, brothers had passed away on a sunny Sunday morning was jolting. Everyone processes grief differently. Friends and teammates struggled to come to terms with the fact that two of their buddies wouldn't be at school anymore, wouldn’t be at practice anymore. No longer would they see Liam’s iconic orange jeep pull into cross country practice. No longer would they hear Reece goofing off with his classmates, trying his best to get a laugh out of them. But deep in their hearts, they knew the boys’ story is more than that, both in life and in death. It might sound cliche, but “they would have wanted us to be happy.” Liam and Reece would not want their friends to be overwhelmed by grief and sadness. The Kelly brothers would want them to lift their heads, remember the past, but also to enjoy the present. And they are doing just that.
Anyone who has spoken to Liam even once would agree that he was a remarkable young man. He was incredibly smart, unendingly patient, and consistently responsible. He had a passion for running, as well as planes and anything related to World War II.
“I would say Liam was very goal oriented. Obviously, he had a very specific goal of getting to the Air Force Academy, and he was also very goal oriented in running,” Boys Cross Country and Track coach Roger Wachtel said.
Liam, showing an incredible commitment to the sport, ran cross country in high school for four years, but he was also a typical teenage boy, playing video games and hanging out with his best friends Riley Armitage (12) and Jack Klopfenstein (12). Liam was also known for his love of learning, spending much of his free time studying up on schoolwork or planes from WWII. His remarkable knowledge of planes and other machines from WWII was a persistent topic of conversation with his friends, and they would often spend hours arguing about which plane was better—the American planes, Liam’s pick, or the foreign planes, Riley’s pick.
“We would talk about politics a lot starting in 7th or 8th grade. He for sure liked to talk about pretty much anything that was educational, from politics to airplanes, pretty much anything,” Armitage said. “One thing we did a lot for the last two years of high school was going to Jack's Donuts some mornings before school. Other than that we would really just hang out and play video games a lot. Well, that and eating Pizza Pringles. Liam started that.”
Liam’s desire to fly for the Air Force is what people say stood out most about him. He was committed to flying from a young age and would do everything he could to find a way to fly. He even went so far as to volunteer to wash planes at a local airplane hangar in return for flight hours.
“He didn't get paid money, he got paid flight hours, which was what he wanted more so it worked out for him,” Armitage said.
His contagious enthusiasm shone through most when he talked about flying. If he wasn’t in a real plane, he was at home researching them, filling his head with all the knowledge he could of new and old airplanes. But Liam was able to balance all aspects of his life, finding time to involve himself thoroughly in running while also keeping up with his studies and making time for friends and family.
He was devoted to the people and things that mattered to him most, so much so that his best friend Armitage said, “His commitment to anything was probably most admirable about him.”
Yet, he still always found time to be silly, doing everything he could to make people laugh. His friends and coaches agree that both Liam and Reece had the wonderful talent of making people laugh.
Reece was your typical 15-year-old boy. He was purposely comical, incredibly goofy, and unceasingly lighthearted.
“Reece was an original. I think that is the best way to describe him, an original,” Megan Smith, his sophomore year English teacher, said.
Reece had a love for video games and World War II, much like his brother. He also had the passionate goal of following his brother into the Air Force Academy and would often go with him to fly airplanes. But since he was younger, he hadn’t quite figured it all out yet. Instead, he spent his time hanging out with friends, goofing off, and making jokes. He was known to be a bit of a class clown, often interrupting class with witty remarks.
“I asked all of the students to show me their face at the end of class one day because I realized I had never seen their face before, and when I got to Reece, he pulled his mask down and made this really funny face. Immediately, the whole class started laughing and it broke the ice,” Smith said when asked about memories she has of Reece.
Even though his high school career was in the shadow of his older brother, Reece still managed to stand out in both academics and running. He was a smart young man who valued school but still understood that it isn’t the only important thing in life.
“Reece was passionate, ambitious, didn’t like English, but he still got his work done,” Smith said.
He knew what he wanted to do in life, even at such a young age, which is extremely admirable. His humor and personality were the core of Reece, leaving everyone he talked to happier after meeting him.
“Reece was nice, he was funny, he was pleasant, and he was also very good to people, which really resonated with them,” Roger Wachtel said.
All of these traits—his humor, his passion, his resilience, his wit—were what made him so special. He never let anything get him down. When he faced a challenge, he didn’t back down; rather, he stood tall and battled. If he didn’t like a certain class, he would find something to enjoy and put 100% effort into it. If he found himself injured in running, he wouldn’t stop and give up; he would do everything he could to heal himself as quickly as possible. This cheerful attitude and flexibility are what made Reece who he was.
The boys were both heavily involved with their sports teams. This year, Reece was competing in his sophomore year of cross country, and Liam was rounding out his final, senior season. Liam had made major improvements throughout his high school career, and Reece was still a young runner, learning and just getting started.
“Liam really improved as a runner in the time he was in the program. He was relatively healthy and he made great strides as a runner. I remember the last comment I gave him after the first time trial we ran was ‘Let's break 19 before your career’s over.’ It hurts that we will never quite get there,” said Coach R. Wachtel. “I was really looking forward to seeing Reece as a runner without his brother. I know being the youngest can be difficult because you have that shadow of your older siblings, so I wanted to see what he would do without Liam’s presence.”
The two boys competed in cross country as well as track and field in the winter and spring. Liam was a strong leader on the team. Being that he was a senior, especially one who had completed four years of running for the high school, many looked up to him and saw him as someone to go to for support and advice. Reece, on the other hand, was only a sophomore and chose to spend his time at practice having fun and making memories with his teammates.
“One time he brought 40 dollars to practice and said, ‘Guys, let’s go get Wendy's during our long run.’ We almost did it too,” fellow runner and friend, Evan Shupe (10) said. “No matter the day or the work out he always managed to put a smile on all our faces.”
The impact that Reece and Liam made on their friends and teammates from the Westfield Cross Country team is a visible footprint; the team met on Sunday, September 20th, the night of the tragedy, to begin the process of grieving together. Many of the boys shared stories about their time with Liam and Reece—some heartbreakingly sentimental; others, making the team smile, resulting in an uproar of laughter. While that night was a swarm of heavy emotions, one thing was clear: these boys had made a remarkable mark on all of their hearts.
Liam and Reece are survived by their parents, Pat and Kesha Kelly. Among other things, the family enjoyed going on vacation and running road races together. It is of utter importance to emphasize what remarkable people Pat and Kesha are.
“Kesha’s resilience when getting up at the funeral and talking was incredible,” R. Watchel said. “I don’t think I could have that strength.”
Not only have they encouraged their two sons through all of their activities and interests, but they are also both involved in their community. The Kelly family attends Grace Church of Noblesville, where Liam and his mother decided to go on a medical mission trip to Haiti in 2017. Additionally, both Kesha and Pat coached for WYSI cross country in the start-up years of the program, where many of Liam and Reece's teammates initially got to know the boys and their parents. Anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting either Pat or Kesha Kelly can understand the incredible kindness they possess and how this rubbed off on their sons.
On September 20, 2020, at around 11 a.m. Liam Patrick Kelly and Reece David Kelly were in a tragic accident. They had gone out early that Sunday morning to attend a flying lesson, something they often did together as a team. When word got out about what had happened, shock paralyzed the community, each grieving in their own way. For the cross country team, it meant meeting that night to discuss the events of the day and process together. It wasn’t until the following day, Monday, September 21, when Principal Alicia Denniston came over the loudspeakers during second period to address the school. She touched on the enormous loss that it was for the school, as well as speaking about how it is okay to grieve in whatever way you see fit.
The following week was somber and upsetting for a lot of people, especially those who were close with the boys. The next day, Tuesday, September 22, the Westfield Cross Country team competed in a JV meet at Noblesville. Instead of canceling the event entirely, the cross country coaching staff chose to continue with the meet as planned, believing it was what the boys would have wanted. The meet was emotional, the entire team feeling the loss of the Kelly brothers, but instead of moping about, everyone decided that they would do what they could to honor the brothers. Both the girls’ and the guys’ teams covered themselves in Sharpie, writing words of encouragement for the race as well as sayings to commemorate the boys. The girls traditionally take a pumpkin to each year's conference event, and since this year the meet at Noblesville was replacing the JV conference, the girls made a pumpkin for the boys, designed by Morgen Houck (12). Although the sadness still hung heavy over all their hearts, they raced for Reece and led for Liam.
The following Friday there was a memorial service and funeral at Grace Church. The service was lovely, and it was obvious that Pat and Kesha’s friends and family had put a lot of work into making it special. The lobby was filled with photos of the boys with their friends and family. Poster boards were covered with photos from all stages of their lives, doing everything from paintball to horseback riding. Each boy had a table full of things they loved. Liam’s table had many different books, including his favorite, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, as well as pictures from his running career and scrapbooks from their family’s travels. Reece’s table had much of the same—books and trinkets that he loved, memorabilia from his running career, and more scrapbooks from their family’s travels. It was obvious, just looking at both tables, that the boys had led joyful lives.
The service itself was quaint and happy. Many, including the boys’ youth pastors, as well as Grace Church’s head pastor spoke. Pat and Kesha also chose particular songs, like “Oceans” by Hillsong, to be performed in honor of the boys. The church was filled with family and friends, as well as people of the community. Most notably, the Kellys chose to have an entire section of the church set aside for the Westfield Cross Country team, and every seat was filled with members of the boys’ team there in support of the family. Although the day was somber and upsetting, it helped many come to terms with the events of the past week and begin to understand what had happened.
Grief is different for everybody. No one person grieves exactly like another. Some, who might not have known the boys well, would feel saddened by the news of their loss; others, who might have known them better, might be shocked and heartbroken by the news. It's important to reiterate that any way a person chooses to grieve is okay. There is no one right way to feel sadness.
“Any time that people go through a loss it’s hard to process. It feels like you're in this alternate world where bad things happen,” Mrs. Smith said.
Loss like this, loss that is so sudden and unexpected, is extremely difficult to process. It’s often like the world has completely turned off its axle, and nothing is the same anymore. But you can’t let your sadness disorient you. It’s necessary to ground yourself, whether it be by thinking back on fond memories of the Kelly brothers, or by talking to those who knew them.
“I think the way we all cope is to lean on each other for support. Knowing that you have people to surround yourself with that are gracious and loving is the best way to deal with anything like this,” Mrs. Smith said. “Don’t be afraid to cry.”
Dealing with loss is difficult, but leaning on the support of others can help. Don’t let what happened to Liam and Reece make you afraid to fly or reluctant to pursue your dreams because ultimately, that’s what the boys were doing. Their mother, Kesha Kelly, at the boys’ Celebration of Life said, “Liam and Reece loved flying and [they] don’t want to be angry at anyone over this….Don’t let us stop you from flying if that is what you want to do.”
They loved flying more than anything, and they were living their dream each and every day. Be inspired by the Kelly brothers. Embrace your grief, but find the strength to rise up and face the next day with the same commitment and joy that the Kelly brothers did. Let’s all race for Reece, and lead for Liam.
Author’s notes from Ella Hiple
When doing research for this story, I found myself immersed in the life of the Kelly brothers, the brothers I honestly didn’t know very well. However, I made it my mission to know as much as I could for this story, and I can say with conviction that I wish I really had known them. At Westfield High School, they are missed by friends, teachers, teammates, and even me. Nothing can ever change the footprint that the Kelly family has left on the Westfield Cross Country team and the community. Their light will forever be missed, but it will continue to be honored in Westfield through memories and scholarships. Through the conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Kelly and countless others, I have witnessed strength and courage. I hope that by sharing the Kelly brothers’ story, it will provide readers with a glimpse of their beautiful lives and possibly even some peace.
Ella Hiple, lead writer