Beloved Ipswich track, football coach Spellman remembered as loyal and dedicated to his student-athletes

Salem News file photoKen Spellman (right), pictured here in 2009 with fellow Ipswich High coaching legend Jack Welch, had the track at Ipswich High School named in his honor earlier this decade. Spellman, who coached track for the Tigers for 50 years while also serving as a football and basketball assistant at the school, died on Monday after a long illness.

Even when the sickness had begun to win its fight against him, Ken Spellman wouldn’t stop coaching.

Up until a few weeks ago, Spellman would still be out on the track named in his honor at Ipswich High School, sitting in a golf cart and working with the Tigers’ javelin throwers. This was the 50th straight year he had worked with the IHS track team, and he was going to do so for as long as possible.

The 76-year-old Spellman, a beloved teacher and coach to thousands of Ipswich High student-athletes, died late Monday afternoon after a lengthy illness.

“He dedicated his entire life to the students and the people of Ipswich,” said Roger Day, one of the many who learned and grew under Spellman’s tutelage and wisdom. “Ken was so beloved by everyone who knew him; he was just a wonderful guy.”

“Ken was dedicated to his profession more than anyone I’ve ever met,” said his fellow Ipswich High coaching legend and good friend, Jack Welch. “He was just as dedicated to our student-athletes, too. He was there all the time and would do anything for anybody.”

Spellman is survived by his wife, Jane, and his stepsons Chad and Jamie.

A member of both the Ipswich High School Athletic Hall of Fame and the Mass. State Track Coaches Association (MSTCA) Hall of Fame, Spellman embodied everything that was Ipswich for a half-century. Following his graduation from Gordon College in 1963, he taught history and coached at the Whipple School in town before continuing both vocations at the high school in 1969.

Spellman coached the IHS indoor and outdoor track teams from 1969-2009, doing everything from winning Cape Ann League Championships and various Coach of the Year accolades to helping start the girls track program in Ipswich in 1974 and making it into a power to be reckoned with soon thereafter.

After stepping down as head coach in 2009, he remained with the track program as an assistant, and a whole new generation of student-athletes got to learn from his expertise.

“Ken was a special man, an outstanding teacher and a beloved coach,” said Ipswich High athletic director Tom Gallagher, who first got to know Spellman when he came to IHS in the early 1990s as a certified athletic trainer. “His leadership and his passion will be missed.

“I always admired how Ken would advocate for kids. He always wanted the best for them, both in Ipswich and for the Cape Ann League. He’s so well known, loved and respected by everyone in the CAL.”

Winner of the Elliott Roundy Distinguished Service Award — named in honor of the esteemed Ipswich High teacher, coach and athletic director — in 2003, Spellman’s contributions to the sport of track and field will live in IHS lore forever. So much so, in fact, that when the school built its new athletic complex in 2010, the Ken Spellman Track came into being.

“Ken just loved to work with kids,” noted Gallagher. “Give him an elite athlete or a beginner, it didn’t matter to him; he treated them all the same and they always got his very best day after day.”

Spellman was also a loyal assistant coach on the gridiron to his fellow coaching giant, Welch, for 35 years. Under their leadership the Tigers became a state powerhouse, winning eight Cape Ann League crowns and five state championships, with Spellman serving as defensive coordinator.

“I could depend on him not only on the football field, but in the classroom, too,” said Welch. “No matter what he did, he was working at it 100 percent. You don’t find many people who are dedicated in one thing for so long with that same enthusiasm.”

“Ken was always very cerebral as far as coaching the X’s and O’s,” added Day, an Ipswich High quarterback in the 1970s who first had Spellman as a junior high basketball coach in the late 1960s. “But you could also talk to him about what’s going on, what to look for, and what you needed to do in almost any situation.”

Less well known, but not to be forgotten, was the fact that Spellman was an assistant boys basketball coach at Ipswich for a decade, helping the Tigers to three CAL titles and one Eastern Mass. crown.

Away from Ipswich High, Spellman was also a mainstay at Crane Beach in town, where he served as head lifeguard for many years. He hired many of his student-athletes as lifeguards, continuing the mentoring that he enjoyed so much. 

“We were so close to him as a teacher, a coach and our boss,” said Day, who called Spellman one of the toughest people, both physically and mentally, he had ever known. 

“He was a true friend; we’d hang out with him. Some guys would golf with him; other times it’d be digging sea clams, going to Patriots games, biking, running, scuba diving or going out on his boat. That’s what he did with his guys.”

“He was one tough hombre right up until the end. I certainly always admired him,” concluded Welch. “He’ll certainly be missed. You don’t just fill the shoes of someone like Ken.”