Kelley Paul enters the Coffee and Eggs restaurant. Her gregarious presence emits a calmness through the cafe. Kindness surrounds her, the effect from being a listener to those who are in recovery at the Isaiah House Treatment Center. The charismatic graduate of Russellville High School still retains the wholesome good looks she had as a teenager when her life was just about to begin. Just nine years after graduating from Rhodes College, she married future U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and began a journey that led her to publish a memoir and become a powerful voice in criminal justice reform.
Yet as a child, Kelley never imagined the day she would speak to a crowd of a thousand people and later write a speech about Alice Johnson (a woman convicted of a non-violent crime, received commutation in 2016). She grew up an ordinary girl in the seventies, an epoch which she calls "living in a simpler time". She loved riding through the neighborhood, cheering her brothers on during the iconic football games, and attending First Baptist Church on Sundays. Russellville was a community-minded place to her — a home of sweet memories. And that was enough, though later, Kelley discovered her life's passion elsewhere.
At sixteen she was focused on what most teenagers are worried about. "My husband knew he wanted to be a doctor at ten," Kelley tells me in admiration of people who develop a passion early on. "I was more like: what am I going to do with my life?" Although a particular interest didn't develop for Kelley early on, she explored her potential by engaging in various extracurricular activities.
At Russellville High, she dominated the top of cheer pyramids, led the Spanish Club as president, wrote for the Panther Chatter newspaper, and competed at state competitions for Speech Club. As it happens, she played the youngest daughter in Fiddler on the Roof. Her love for Russellville High School included its school spirit. "During the basketball tournaments, football tournaments, the whole school would be covered in black and gold crepe paper," she says. "On theme days, the guys were all in greaser shirts with their hair done back, and the girls would be in fifties poodle skirts."
These years were times of delight and self-discovery, but despite not having a blueprint for the future, Kelley says her English teacher sensed a potential inside her to become an eminent writer. "Mrs. Flowers was the person who first told me that I had writing talent." Her teacher's encouragement is what sparked Kelley's love for English Literature.
"I can tell you read a lot from the way you write." Mrs. Flowers said after a romance novel dropped out of her backpack. The affection that shone in Kelley's eyes as she reminisced over the unforgettable memory communicated how much it meant for Mrs. Flowers to uplift her in an embarrassing moment. "I love a good romance novel too, but if you like romance, I want to recommend Jane Austin, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte—" Soon, Kelley found herself reading numerous classics from female authors, some of which are still her favorite today. "That's why I think teaching is such an important profession."
Kelley says without a doubt. Kelley graduated from Russellville High knowing she loved to write, but then a fear set in. She wasn't sure if an English Degree provided job stability. Anxiety plagued her mind and loomed over Kelley during her sophomore year. After not clicking in an accounting class, she called her brother for advice. Kelley remembered him saying, "Major in something in which you can become a good communicator. People who can write, who can think, who can communicate, are always valuable in business."
His advice influenced Kelley's decision to major in English. Her senior year, she interned with a company and worked on their corporate magazine. Eventually, it led to Kelley's first job in Atlanta and started her journey into corporate communications. "It happened kind of organically," Kelley expresses. "Sometimes you just take that first step and another door opens. And eventually you end up somewhere you didn't even know." She learned this valuable life lesson while working for Sprint. One of her biggest assignments was to go down to a conference, interview 400 to 500 customers, and create a video on how they felt about the brand. "It involved learning how to interview, learning how to get the best sound bites, and edit that down," she explains. The work she completed with Sprint led to another job and so on.
As the interview draws to a close, Kelley reflects over her life and describes a legacy she wants to leave behind for Russellville students. "Anything is possible, and you don't have to know where you're going." She explains that life doesn't travel on just one path. "Don't cut yourself off from any opportunities. If you have an idea, don't be afraid to put it in motion. It may not always turn out, but there's a strong possibility that it will if you put the due diligence in."
She hopes she sets an example for students as someone who followed a path of interest. Kelley has a long resume in the writing industry, and it's because she opened herself up to opportunities that allowed her to stretch and grow.
One day she was giving a vivid speech about her grandmother, and a publisher saw the potential of it turning into a book. In 2015, she published her first book — "True and Constant Friends: Love and Inspiration From Our Grandmothers, Mothers, and Friends". Writing a book was never in her plans, but the opportunity presented itself and she took it. Kelley hopes to inspire people in small towns to not doubt themselves because of where they're from. "Sometimes people from small towns might be a little intimidated. I know I was, but I worked harder because I was worried. Sometimes that's an advantage."
In the last moments of the interview, I ask Kelley what she would say if her fifteen-year-old self was sitting in front of her. Before she even says a word, Kelley's smile reveals the message her teenage self would be proud to hear. "You have a great life ahead. Not all of your dreams will come true, but the most important ones will. Be open to surprise and don't close any doors. Some of the things you think will have a negative outcome on you or will be too stressful, will actually bring you some of your greatest joys in life. You're going to have an amazing life and lots of good surprises are ahead!"