David Kelso Spradling III had an endless desire to explore whatever stood beyond the next door, down the next street or in the next classroom.
“He always wondered what was around the next corner,” Dana Kelso said of her late husband, a longtime local disc jockey, media professional and educator who died Sept. 14 at age 53. “He had the next-corner-itis.”
That perpetual need for discovery offered fun, Dana Kelso said, but it could also lead to long hours at work and late nights out while traveling.
“‘What if there’s this one more cool thing across this bridge, Dana?’” she recalled Kelso saying, imitating her husband’s voice with a blend of child-like wonder and an adult’s ability to put others at ease. “There were many nights we stayed out later than we should have with a 2-year-old while we were traveling, because, ‘What if there’s something cool around this corner?’”
That “next-corner-itis” propelled the man whom most simply called Kelso. Despite being diagnosed in December 2019 with a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma, Kelso lived a full, adventurous life. He traveled the world, partied with rock stars, embedded with troops in war-torn countries and became a beloved figure in Norman and the broader metro-area community.
“He had that enthusiasm,” Dana recalled. “That love for life.”
‘The life of the party’
Born July 6, 1968, in Queens, New York, David Kelso grew up in a military family and lived in several cities and states, which widened his worldview and gave him an openness to novel experiences. Kelso spent a portion of his childhood in Germany, where his father served as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and his mother worked in the home. He graduated from Heidelberg American High School in 1986. Kelso’s family made it a point not to live on the military base.
“Wherever they lived, they tried to learn the customs and the cultures,” Dana Kelso said. “They spoke German in the household, and their mom tried diligently every time they moved somewhere to live off base and live in the community. So they did not live on base in Germany, and they lived in a German neighborhood.”
Sean Murphy, the Oklahoma Capitol correspondent for the Associated Press, graduated from Heidelberg American High School in 1987. Murphy, who knew Kelso then as David Spradling, said they hung out at parties and were regulars at a local brewery called Eichbaum.
“He was popular in high school because he had the same kind of cheery, gregarious attitude,” Murphy said.
In high school, Kelso’s classmates called him “Checkers” because of the checkered bandanas he often wore, Murphy recalled. Kelso worked on the yearbook staff and could always be spotted with a camera dangling from his neck.
A few years later, Kelso and Murphy coincidentally reconnected across the Atlantic Ocean at the University of Oklahoma, where both pursued journalism degrees. Kelso’s family had long been connected to OU, which both his parents and a grandfather attended. Murphy’s family lived in Lawton, as his father had been stationed at Fort Sill.
On campus in Norman, Murphy said it blew his mind to encounter Kelso more than 5,000 miles from the high school where they had first met.
“I remember walking across campus one day shortly after I arrived there. I didn’t have many friends. I didn’t know many people. And Dave, you know, Dave kind of has a large head. And then he also has a big mop of curly hair. So I saw this giant head, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s David Spradling,’” Murphy recalled, laughing. “And sure enough, I approached him and we hugged. I couldn’t believe he was there.”
Kelso and Murphy shortly lived together in an off-campus apartment. Murphy recalls partying with Kelso at The Deli and Liberty D’s, both then mainstays of Campus Corner’s live-music scene, and the latter of which is now Pepe Delgados.
“He was just always a good guy,” Murphy said. “The life of the party.”
David Kelso viewed radio as an ‘original social media’
While in college, David Kelso began working at the radio station KRXO in 1991. He graduated from OU in 1993 and worked at the station until he and Dana moved to Hawaii, in 1999. After living there for nearly four years, Kelso accepted a job back at KRXO, and the couple returned to Norman in 2002 to be closer to their grandmothers.
For nearly 20 years, Kelso hosted KRXO shows where he talked classic rock and conducted interviews with stars like Paul McCartney, Steven Tyler and Eddie Van Halen. He also DJ’d at KOMA and hosted on KOKC, where he talked civics and interviewed politicians. Kelso often referred to radio as “an original social media,” and in it he found a format that fit perfectly with his larger-than-life personality.
KOMA’s program director, Jennifer Lee, worked with Kelso for more than 20 years.
“I don’t know if maybe he was more wild or hippie-like, but he was just for a good time and loved the Grateful Dead,” Lee said. “He had longer hair. He just wanted to have a good time and make sure everybody had a good time.”
Lee said that throughout her time working with Kelso, he and Dana — whom he married in 2000 — would befriend people who may have felt outcast.
“I call it collecting strays,” Lee said. “They would collect people, maybe misfits, or people that felt like they didn’t fit in anywhere. They would be their friends and make sure they felt like they were loved and were included in stuff.”
In 2018, Kelso hosted the morning show on KOKC 1520 AM, Tyler Media’s political talk radio station. For more than a year, Joe Dorman — CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy and a former Democratic nominee for governor — served as a recurring guest on Kelso’s show. The duo talked politics from 6 to 9 a.m. every Tuesday.
“I voluntarily got up at 5:30 every Tuesday to go on air with him for three hours and loved that time,” Dorman said. “I never grumbled about the time, because I knew it was going to be a fun three hours.”
Chad Alexander, a longtime lobbyist and political operative, still hosts the afternoon drive-time show on KOKC. Alexander said he and Kelso had political differences, but they never argued.
“He was a very intellectual guy and very passionate about the community, the state and country,” Alexander said. “But we never had a disagreement. We never had an argument. It was always just a conversation.”
Dorman seconded that point.
“He was the best person about agreeing to disagree, right? He never held grudges from what I could tell,” Dorman said. “He would let them know he didn’t agree with them. He wouldn’t walk away from it, and he definitely didn’t soft pedal things where you didn’t know where his position was, but you could still agree to be a friend and agree to disagree.”
Dorman said that authenticity extended to Kelso’s on-air presence, which set him apart from other radio hosts.
“The best thing about Kelso is what you heard on the radio is what you heard when you saw him off the air. He was just a genuine person,” Dorman said. “There were no gimmicks to this. He was just a wonderful human being. And you could sense that just with a conversation. Whether it was him DJing on a rock station or him talking politics on KOKC, he was genuine.”
A calling in the classroom
Twenty-four years after graduating from college, Kelso carried his love and enthusiasm for media back into the classroom when he began teaching in 2017, the same year he completed a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication at OU.
Kelso felt a calling to teach at OU, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who had been an assistant business law professor in the 1940s. His father was also a drama instructor and stage manager in the 1960s before being drafted into the Vietnam War.
Kelso had planned to earn his doctoral degree and become a full-time professor.
“There is but one university in the world for me, and that is this one,” Kelso told The OU Daily in 2019. “This is my town. This is my university, and this is where I go.”
During his master’s program, Kelso worked as a teaching assistant for journalism professor Jaime Loke. Loke said she initially thought Kelso might be a curmudgeon but soon found him to be “the complete opposite.”
“He was a wonderful student and a wonderful TA,” said Loke, who is now an associate professor at TCU. “He was great in the classroom. He was really different in that he was really passionate about learning and figuring things out and helping students.”
Drew Hutchinson, a former student of Kelso’s at OU, described him as a caring and joyous professor.
“He was a very wise person, but he was also kind of a little kid trapped in an adult’s body. He always had a childlike sense of absolute joy and wonder at everything,” said Hutchinson, who now is a business reporter in Nashville. “He was the type to stop class and just order pizza on a whim. He was the type to show you pictures of his travels during class, or play his favorite music or — I never personally saw this — but other people saw him skateboarding down the hall multiple times. That kind of thing. He was a lot of fun.”
Kelso — who taught media writing and storytelling, multimedia content management and interactive multimedia — always found a connection with his students, even after they left his classroom.
“Kelso was the kind of professor who worked really hard to make sure that he had a personal relationship with everyone,” said Wendy Weitzel, a former student. “He worked really hard to keep tabs on everyone and make sure everyone felt comfortable going to him.”
Kelso’s love for teaching and seeing students achieve lightbulb moments radiated throughout his classroom. His passion was contagious, Hutchinson said.
“He was so excited whenever a concept clicked for us, which is why his class was so fun and which is why students did so well in his classes,” Hutchinson said. “He oversaw what was an incredibly positive environment, in the midst of teaching students who are juniors and seniors and were overworked, tired and under-caffeinated.”
When times were hard, Kelso made a point of demonstrating compassion for students’ health and wellbeing. During maybe the toughest time of her life, Hutchinson said Kelso became a lifeline.
“There were multiple times where I was afraid I was going to have to take a semester off because I just wasn’t doing well. And he was one of the few people who really encouraged me to just try to stick it out,” Hutchinson said. “He worked with me on deadlines. And then in the spring, when COVID hit, he took it really seriously. He checked in with us all the time.”
In honor of Kelso, OU’s Gaylord College has created an award called the David Kelso Outstanding Adjunct Instructor Award. Kenny Mossman, an executive associate athletics director who teaches sports public relations, received the recognition in November.
Continuing adventure in ‘the church in the tall trees’
Kelso’s dauntless sense of adventure continued even after he the diagnosis of glioblastoma in December 2019. His wanderlust led him and a group of friends to create Hike to Heal, a gathering where those affected by cancer regularly went hiking.
Kelso referred to that time in nature as “church in the tall trees,” Dana Kelso said. The effort inspired others.
“He sought to get people together who were sharing some kind of tough time in their life, and just walk it out,” Dorman said. “Just go have a hike, enjoy nature, talk to each other if you wanted to, and help each other out. Just love thy neighbor.”
While Kelso loved the outdoors, music and traveling, he valued spending time with his son, David Spradling IV, more than anything else.
“They did everything together,” said Dana, who works as an executive director at Community Literacy Centers.
David Kelso had an abundance of nicknames for his son: Boy Wonder, Diggity and D4, to name a few. When the younger David entered preschool, he was the only student who had homework, because his father would keep him home in the mornings before going to work.
“There’s no way I’m taking this kid in from 8 to noon,” Dana remembers her husband saying. Instead, father and son spent that time together, whether with Gymboree Play & Music when David was little, skateboarding as he grew older or even over that preschool homework.
“They just bonded over stuff like that,” Dana said. “He and his mini-me, they went everywhere together.”
David is now 14 years old and had just begun his freshman year at Norman High School when his father died.
In addition to his wife and son, David Kelso Spradling III is survived by his parents, David and Nancy Spradling, his brother, Sean, a number of cousins, aunts and uncles and a village of friends.
‘Look for the light. Look for the love.’
Between trips to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, rounds of chemotherapy, radiation treatment and therapeutic hikes with friends, Kelso had taken on coordinating a Gaylord course called Writing for Mass Media, with dozens of sections and upward of 100 students. The survey course offers OU media students the opportunity to sample all of Gaylord College’s possible majors before zeroing in on their particular choice.
Signing off at the end of the spring 2021 semester, Kelso wrote to the adjuncts he oversaw with the subject line, “This is the end my friend”:
To borrow a line, “…it’s been rough and rocky traveling…” There is just no way to understate the insanity, the stress and just weirdness of the last year.
And you performed like the amazingly compassionate, determined and creative educators you are. I am inspired by your perseverance in the face of oddness.
Thank you for your efforts. I hope we’re approaching something close to normal and the sailing will be a bit smoother from here.
Doctors found a large recurrence tumor just weeks later in June.
Kelso spent the last months of his life exploring Texas beaches with his family during trips to Houston for treatment and in the comfort of his village of support back in Norman. Kelso entered hospice care Sept. 1 after the tumor spread into his brain stem and spinal cord, affecting his speech and motor skills. His final weeks were difficult, Dana said. Still, he was able to mouth the words to his favorite songs and tell family members that he loved them up until his death Sept. 14.
Rather than a funeral or memorial, Kelso fittingly wanted a celebration of life, which was held Oct. 3 at Lions Park. Family and friends gathered in the church in the tall trees just blocks from the OU campus Kelso loved — sporting their favorite band T-shirts and silly socks to listen to live music and tell their favorite Kelso stories.
The night before what would ultimately be his final surgery on July 1, Kelso recorded a video, which Dana posted to Facebook:
I like to think that my life has been defined by love. By the things I love, the people I love, the people who love me and the things we do in the name of that love, and I love that. I think that’s great. I don’t mind that. I don’t mind ending life on that note.
I want you to stop looking inside. I want you to look outside. I want you to look for the light. I want you to look for the love. Find something positive. Find something positively valent, once a day. Share that with somebody else. Move that positivity forward. Look for the life. Look for the love.
I swear to God. Confessions of a dead man kind of thing? Love and light is the answer. It’s the answer, it’s the question, it’s the punctuation mark. It’s everything.
But if things are going to be different tomorrow, I want you to know that I love you. I really do. If you could see you the way I see you right now, you’d see how perfect you are. If you could see life the way I see life right now, you’d see how unspeakably beautiful it is.
(Correction: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, Dec. 14, to reflect the accurate date in which a video was posted. NonDoc regrets this error.)