Arkansas Professor had feared trouble

Tuesday, August 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

67-year-old John R. Locke, a University of Arkansas English professor, killed by gunfire Monday. Photo courtesy: UALR.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – University of Arkansas English professor Dr. John Locke was nervous about meeting with a recently dismissed graduate student, colleagues said Tuesday.

James Kelly had been kicked out of the doctoral program where he had spent the last 10 years and Dr. Locke was his faculty adviser. Mr. Kelly had requested a meeting with Dr. Locke.

"John and I were discussing the case and the upcoming meeting, and John said he was making a point to talk to Jim in the main English department office, and not in his own private office," said Brian Wilkie, an English professor who worked with Mr. Locke. "I asked, 'Do you think he might be violent?' and John answered, sort of hesitantly, 'I don't know.'"

It was not clear if the meeting Mr. Kelly requested had been scheduled, but it is known that the two met Monday in Dr. Locke's office on the second floor of Kimpel Hall.

Gunshots were heard coming from the office after noon and, when campus police got though the locked doors, they found the bodies of Dr. Locke, 67, head of the comparative literature program, and Mr. Kelly, 37. A .38-caliber pistol belonging to Mr. Kelly was found on the floor between them.

Both men had gunshot wounds in the "abdomen area," officials said. Campus police said the deaths were an apparent murder-suicide, but they declined to speculate who shot whom.

"We don't want to say it was one way and it turns out to be a different way, with the location of the gun and the two bodies. It was not obvious at the scene," said university police Lt. Gary Crain.

Police requested that the state medical examiner in Little Rock put a priority on conducting autopsies that were expected to indicate what had happened in that office.

Police said they found four empty shells in the pistol and 90 rounds of .38-caliber ammunition in a black leather attache case belonging to Mr. Kelly in the room.

Mr. Kelly, a doctoral student in comparative literature, was sent a letter on Aug. 21 notifying him that he had been dismissed from the program at the William J. Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. He had been working toward a Ph.D. at the university since 1990.

The committee said Mr. Kelly had made insufficient progress. It also said he had cut too many classes and had enrolled and then withdrawn from graduate courses numerous times since 1996.

When a committee of eight professors met on Aug. 18 to decide Mr. Kelly's academic fate, Dr. Locke abstained from voting on whether to dismiss the graduate student from the program. Mr. Kelly would not have known how individual committee members voted, said Randall Woods, dean of the Fulbright College.

Dr. Woods also said that Dr. Locke was known as an advocate and supporter for Mr. Kelly.

"He didn't take his work very seriously," Dr. Wilkie said of Mr. Kelly. "He never struck me as a sinister person, just not very motivated."

Dr. Wilkie said Mr. Kelly "kept falling on his face" and had been dropped from the program at least three times. Each time until last week, the faculty had voted to reinstate him.

Dr. Woods said Mr. Kelly was enrolled in seven hours of classes as a "non-degree special student." He speculated that Dr. Locke had told Mr. Kelly that if he passed the seven hours, he could reapply for admission to the comparative literature doctoral program.

Other English professors who knew Mr. Kelly said that the academic world was his life.

"He had a string of academic rejection," said Suzanne MacRae, an English professor. "I am sure this was the final straw. He was a gentle person, but I think he was a loner ... a lost soul, I am afraid."

Ms. MacRae said she had taught Mr. Kelly in a course in African literature and that he was interested in his African heritage. She also worked with him when the campus' multicultural center was forming three years ago. Mr. Kelly had worked in a managerial position at the center in about 1998.

"He was very sweet and very nice," said Ms. MacRae. "I would have never expected anything like this."

Some instructors said that Mr. Kelly was a "professional student" and described him as a tall, slim and "gawky" man who wore glasses and looked "academic."

Mr. Kelly had received some fellowship aid during his studies, Dr. Woods said. He said he could not be more specific.

In addition to the ammunition in the attache case, police said they found five envelopes from university officials that contained notification of Mr. Kelly's termination from the graduate program, correspondence from faculty members and several credit card bills.

Mr. Kelly, who grew up in Marianna, a small Delta town in eastern Arkansas, was described as "brilliant" by former teachers who knew him.

Nancy Blount, a teacher at Marianna High School, said that Mr. Kelly was known as the student who had scored the highest "ever" on the ACT test at the high school. She said she did not know the score.

Both of Mr. Kelly's parents are dead. His mother was a teacher in the school district and his father was a minister. Those who remembered the family said they were "low-profile."

Officials said they didn't know of any tensions between Dr. Locke and Mr. Kelly. Professors said that a closeness often develops between a faculty adviser and a Ph.D. student as the student works on a dissertation.

English department faculty said Dr. Locke was a private person who always listened to his peers' and students' problems even though he didn't often initiate conversation. They said Mr. Kelly and Dr. Locke were alike in that way.

"John would talk about literature and ideas but he was a very Zen person," said Ms. MacRae.

On Tuesday, the second day of classes, college officials held a forum to address the shooting and answer faculty and students' questions. More than 800 faculty members and students attended the meeting, and more listened as the event was broadcast on the student union sound system.

Flags flew at half-staff on campus, and chalk writings on the sidewalks expressed such sentiments as "Smile at the next person you see."

Counseling for faculty and students has been set up for those who needed to talk about the shooting.