Retired Ballard High School teacher Earl Kelly, whose pursuit of excellence inspired hundreds of student actors, has died from complications...

Retired Ballard High School teacher Earl Kelly, whose pursuit of excellence inspired hundreds of student actors, has died from complications related to pneumonia and dementia. He was 82.

The school’s theater is named for Mr. Kelly, who taught drama and humanities at Ballard from 1954 to 1987.

He also directed dozens of plays for community theaters and co-founded the Piccoli Junior Theatre Guild based at Seattle Center.

Mr. Kelly, who died Aug. 8, was raised in the Yakima area and attended Lower Naches High School, where he acted in the play “Headed for Eden.” During and after World War II, he served in the Army in the South Pacific, where he played the chapel organ in Okinawa. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in drama from the University of Washington and completed a fellowship at Columbia University in New York.

At Ballard, Mr. Kelly directed a half-dozen or more shows a year, ranging from murder mysteries to Shakespeare to “The Music Man.” He put on a dinner theater in which home-economics students prepared the food.

Amy Gregory recalls her freshman year at Ballard, when a speech therapist encouraged her to try drama. She approached Mr. Kelly, lisping as she told him her life story. He furrowed his brow, shook his head and walked away. Undaunted, the girl enrolled in drama class sophomore year.

Though Mr. Kelly never would dwell on her speech impediment, he admonished in his resonant voice, “Concentrate! Don’t get lazy,” whenever her enunciation faltered. After one semester, the lisp disappeared. Gregory, who was then Amy Brooking, is now a drama teacher at Sedro-Woolley High School.

To improve his students’ concentration, Mr. Kelly had his students practice fencing while also reciting classic lines as they sparred: “Man is by nature a political animal,” by Aristotle, or “The beginning is the most important part of the work,” by Plato, recalls David Wright, now a fiction librarian for the Seattle Public Library.

He organized field trips to the Moore Theatre, where he would stand in the back and order the students to project their voices.

Young actors played pranks, hoping to elicit Mr. Kelly’s hearty laugh. A statue from an A&W Root Beer hamburger stand showed up on his lawn. Students offered him pilfered “Earl Avenue NW” street signs. They gave him a small crocodile, which died in a terrarium and was buried somewhere on campus.

His former students include actress Jean Smart, a star of the television shows “24” and “Designing Women.”

Mr. Kelly’s family was his cast, stagehands and students, as he had no wife or children, said alum Sharon Honsey, who created an online tribute at www.mem.com. He enjoyed travel, especially to Italy, Greece, Australia, London and Paris.

At Mr. Kelly’s request, there was no memorial service, and his ashes will be released into Puget Sound, said Honsey. Donations may be made to the Ballard High School Foundation, P.O. Box 17626, Seattle, WA 98127.

Staff reporter Judy Chia Hui Hsu contributed to this story. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com