The widow, Mary Ruth Becker Kelley, lives in Hightstown, a borough of 5,000 in central New Jersey where she was born 83 years ago. She is a strong woman, a retired Navy nurse, but she remains devastated and confused by her husband's death. Suicide violates her religious beliefs—she is a devout Catholic. Her husband's suicide defies her idea of who he was, for she never saw it coming.
"He liked to tend to the lawn, keep up with the kids, watch his football games on TV," she says. "He had great wit. That was the thing that attracted me to him. When people would ask us the breed of our dogs, he'd say, 'The mother was a schnauzer and the father a traveling salesman.' " She laughs, for a half-moment.
In darker moments she grapples with the questions that often haunt the families of suicides: Was her husband's final act selfish or his attempt to spare her the burden of his old age? Were there signs of depression that she missed? What was his concept of love?
Her family comes by her house to comfort her and take her to church, which she attends daily. She has a brother and two sisters in and around Hightstown, and they and two deceased sisters had 18 children. Those children, many of them in middle age, are the 18 nieces and nephews that Kelley was referring to when he announced his decision to sell his Heisman last year. "They've been good to me, and now I want to be good to them," Kelley said at the time, affirming that he had no money problems. "You can't divide a trophy among 18 nieces and nephews."
The nephews and nieces were like his children. Ruth once asked her husband if he was disappointed that they weren't able to have children of their own. He answered, "Oh, it would have been nice to have had a son." That was it. The subject was never raised again.
The final day of his life was the last Tuesday in June. It seemed ordinary enough. In recent years Kelley had endured a stroke and undergone heart bypass surgery, and in recent months his appetite had diminished. But his mind was still sharp, he suffered from no fatal disease, and he could move around on his own (though he could no longer play golf, for decades an anchor in his life). He would often say to his wife, "If I could just get rid of this buzzing in my ear, everything would be fine."
His life had its patterns. He'd watch football, basketball, baseball and golf on television; attend family get-togethers almost every Sunday afternoon; talk to administrators at Yale and Peddie and the Downtown Athletic Club. At one point, he tried to get one of his grandnephews into Peddie, without success. The rejection left him disappointed with his old school, but he got over it. He was always planning something, and people were always planning something for him: a card show at which he'd sign autographs, a tailgate party at an Ivy League football game, a luncheon where he would be celebrated.
Each morning, before she left for church, Ruth would bring Larry coffee and the sports section in bed. Tuesday, June 27, was no different, except that on this morning Larry wanted two poached eggs and a piece of crumbled toast with his coffee and paper. He said he was hungry. Before leaving for church and for her annual eye exam afterward, Ruth called out to her husband, "See you shortly, sweetie."
Her hearing is very poor, and she could not make out his response. When she returned, around noon, she could not find him. She searched all through the house. She searched outside the house. No sign of Larry. She headed down into their finished basement.
Ruth had a desk in the basement, where she had recently reread more than 60 years of letters from Larry—they had met in 1938, when Larry was a golfing buddy of Ruth's brother, Red—before cutting each letter into tiny pieces. She was facing the somber music of old age, wrapping up the loose ends of her life. She knew many thoughts expressed in those letters were for her eyes only. It was emotionally draining, parting with those old letters.