Harold M. McRae (ADL '65), alumnus and trustee emeritus, established the Frank “Doc” Kelker Scholarship in 1997 to help students offset the costs of attending CWRU and to “remove the barriers between young scholars and their potential.”
“My ambition has always been to direct young people toward meaningful lives and help them become productive citizens. Many people have helped me. I’m trying to pay them back by helping others. I want the lives of these kids to be better because I touched them.”
- Frank “Doc” Kelker
Frank Leon Kelker (ADL ’38) was born in Woodsville, Florida, in 1913. He acquired his nickname from his twin brother, Fred, who began calling him “Doc” when they were both just learning to talk. Kelker’s father, determined to provide his sons with an education that would have been denied them in the South, moved the family to Dover, Ohio, in 1918. Kelker first achieved athletic fame at Dover High School, leading the football team through two undefeated seasons and the basketball team to a state championship.
Ohio State reportedly tried to recruit Kelker, but only as a football player; in those years, the Big Ten basketball teams excluded African-Americans. Kelker knew he would face no such restriction at Western Reserve, but that wasn’t his only reason for coming here. He hoped to play for football coach Sam Willaman, who had just left Ohio State to take over the Red Cats. And his father, impressed by the university’s academic reputation, wanted him to attend Western Reserve.
Kelker enrolled at Adelbert College with a full-tuition scholarship. To cover his room and board, he worked as a janitor at Flora Stone Mather College, sweeping the floors of Haydn Hall for three hours each morning and sifting ashes in the power house at night. He was paid 40 cents an hour. Long afterward, a classmate remembered Kelker buying a five-cent ice cream and calling it lunch.
During his sophomore year, Kelker earned three varsity letters— one each in football, basketball and track—and he repeated this performance in his junior and senior years. During Kelker’s three years on the team, the Red Cats enjoyed a 28-game winning streak and were invited to the Sun Bowl. The sports editor of The Cleveland Press called him “not only one of the finest defensive ends in the history of football in this section,” but also “one of the finest receivers of forward passes who ever lived.” Meanwhile, Kelker was named an All-American in basketball, and in track he broke school records in the 100-yard dash (9.9 seconds) and the quarter-mile (49.1 seconds).
Kelker graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social administration. He was awarded an Honor Key and a Warion Society Key, and his class selected him as the Outstanding Senior Student for 1937-1938. That spring, the university mistakenly announced that he’d also been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Appearing on WGAR radio, Western Reserve Dean W. D. Trautman acknowledged the error but then made it the occasion for a testimonial.
Because of the color barrier in professional sports, Kelker could not advance to an NFL career. It was said that several alumni offered him jobs “with interesting futures,” but he had decided he wanted to work with young people. After graduating, Kelker was hired as a cadet teacher and assistant coach at Cleveland’s Central High School. Two years later, he accepted a position with the YMCA, the organization to which he devoted the rest of his career. He was the longtime executive secretary of the Cedar Avenue Branch, where the brothers Louis and Carl Stokes were among the youths he mentored. By the time he retired in 1981, he oversaw all of Cleveland’s urban branches.
Among his many civic contributions, Kelker served as a founding trustee and board chair of Cuyahoga Community College. In 1962, he was elected to the Sports Illustrated Silver Anniversary All-American Football Team in recognition of his achievements since his graduation. Kelker was the first African-American to receive this honor, and indeed the first ever to be nominated. After the awards ceremony in New York City, Kelker sent a letter thanking President Millis for the nomination. “It was a pleasure,” he wrote, “to represent Western Reserve University and to see the banner of our great school hanging in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria.”
Frank “Doc” Kelker died in May 2003 at the age of 89. Reflecting on his commitment to education and public service, he once told a reporter, “My ambition has always been to direct young people toward meaningful lives and help them become productive citizens. Many people have helped me. I’m trying to pay them back by helping others. I want the lives of these kids to be better because I touched them.”
Published sources: Hal Lebovitz, The Plain Dealer (February 16, 1970); Richard M. Perry, The Plain Dealer (May 31, 2003); Dennis Rubright, “Doc Kelker: Portrait of a Gentleman,” Dover Football (2001).