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Award, inauguration milestones for local activist

PALMETTO — The acceptance speech was done.

The itinerary, set.

Yet Jeanette Kelly was on needles and pins.

“I’m ecstatic but getting so nervous,” said the 64-year-old grandmother, pausing from paperwork to pinch herself. “Is it really real? It’s getting closer, but am I really going to make it?”

On Friday night, the retired Manatee County school teacher will receive the 2009 Louise B. Johnson Humanitarian Award at the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Awards Banquet at the Palmetto Youth Center.

“I’m humbled,” Kelly said. “I’ve done some good, but more needs to be done.”

Then on Sunday she’s off to Washington, D.C. for Tuesday’s historic inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th president.

“It’s going to be a biiig time,” Kelly said.

Big, indeed.

Especially for a matriarch whose warmth belies wounds she suffered as a young woman — “A Civil Rights Foot Soldier,” reads another award’s inscription — in segregated St. Augustine during the tumultuous 1960s.

“People meeting her the first time would not know what she’s experienced,” said Osie Sailes, a longtime Palmetto Youth Center volunteer.

Jailed for eight days.

Pelted by rocks.

Taunted with racial epithets.

“Rough times,” said Kelly, then a student at an all-black high school. “It was not as vicious as some other places — Selma, Montgomery, Jackson — but it was tense, the way people glared at you, the name-calling, not knowing whether we would get back home once we started marching.

“We were taught to ignore what they say, not be offended and not respond or retaliate because you know who you are,” she said.

It was her father who taught her that life lesson.

Rev. Goldie M. Eubanks Sr. spearheaded the civil rights movement in St. Augustine, successfully involving King, who was arrested at a restaurant sit-in in 1964.

Her father’s courage — spit on, attacked by dogs, arrested on trumped up murder charges — is Kelly’s legacy.

“He was not afraid,” she said. “He said God was going to be on his side. If he could do it, I wanted to do it. It was well worth it, making things better for generations to come.”

Among those generations were Kelly’s elementary school students during a 33-year span at Tillman, Palmetto and Orange Ridge-Bullock elementary schools.

“Because of the trials she faced, she’s a very peaceful woman who gave out love,” said Fran Padgett, the former principal at Orange Ridge-Bullock. “She was an inspiration for all kinds of kids.”

Still is.

“No matter where they came from, you can do great things, was her message,” said Nancy Porter, Tillman’s former volunteer director.

It’s a message embodied in Tuesday’s inauguration.

Kelly will bring photos of her deceased father and mother, Hattie, to the momentous event.

“People who came before (Obama) helped pave the way,” she said.

People like Jeanette Kelly.