Hurricane Katrina

Chief optimist

It's Saturday morning, and John Kelley has just finished cooking breakfast for members and cleanup volunteers at Trinity United Methodist Church.

He sits in a floral-print chair, a coffee mug in one hand, a piece of pound cake in the other.

"We're going to start with a math lesson," he begins. "I was born June 4, 1924. How old am I?"

At 81, Kelley resists all stereotypes.

A parachutist in World War II, he grew up in the Depression, though he was unaware of it, he says.

He also was a civil-service engineer at Keesler Air Force Base for 34 years - until he quit his job in 1982 to become the custodian and groundskeeper at Trinity, where he is also a member.

Cooking breakfast for people is a task Kelley took on after Katrina.

His take-it-as-it-comes mindset leaves room for life's options, not for wasting time on grief or loss.

He defies the assumption that starting from scratch and adjusting to tremendous, often heart-wrenching change is impossible so late in life.

"I can't sing and I can't preach - I had to do something," he explains.

In this landscape of despair and devastation, anybody - no matter what age - has the power to help out, provided they are willing, he adds.

Like many other volunteers, Kelley's outlet has been his church.

"If it weren't for churches the Coast would be a mess," he says. "Churches were in here long before the government was."

But it's not only his skill at serving up eggs and bacon that sets Kelley apart - it's his ability to remain optimistic and driven.

"It's just my nature, I guess," he says, laughing. "You've just got to have something to recharge the batteries somehow."

Kelley has lived in eight decades, after all. He rode streetcars and flew model airplanes off airport runways in Atlanta, where he grew up.

In 2002, Kelley wrote his autobiography for his grandchildren.

He writes, "Maybe my attitude toward life is like a saying I saw on the wall behind the donut machine in an Army BX: 'As you ramble through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut and not upon the hole.'"