Here’s a title for some future Gary Kelley biographer: “Model of Midwest Modesty.” I’ve known Gary since the 1970s, talked with him at art openings, celebratory gatherings, as a co-teacher and while traveling with tour groups in Europe.

Never once have I heard him brag about, or hardly mention, his accomplishments.

Modesty, thy name is Kelley.

“It ain’t bragging’ if it’s true,” said Will Rogers. Gary could easily be a self-promoting “look at me” artist using a tenth of his resume. But he can’t and won’t, and that makes his humility all the more endearing.

So let me do something he would never do: brag up his accomplishments.

Kelley serves on the Faculty of the Illustration Academy in Kansas City, Richmond, Sarasota and San Francisco, and has offered seminars and lectures at the Smithsonian and Corcoran galleries in Washington D.C., at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., the Rhode Island School of Design and the Chicago Art Institute.

He has given one-man exhibitions for the Academy of Art in Cincinnati, for the Pablo Neruda Cultural Center in Paris, he sits in the Society of Illustrators’ Hall of Fame, has won 28 Gold and Silver for the Society of Illustrators’ annual exhibitions. Over his career, he has illustrated 30 picture books, all to critical acclaim. In fact, his “Harlem Hellfighters” was named by the New York Times in 2014 was named one of the 10 best picture books of the year.

He’s also illustrated for a host of major national publications, including Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and oh yes, he illustrated the cover of the Super Bowl program in 1990.

Have you noticed those huge illustrations of writers that grace the walls of Barnes and Noble bookstores across the country? And when you drive I-29 past the massive Google Data Center Building in Council Bluffs, note that mural — a block long and 70 feet high — showing a history of American communications. All Gary Kelley.

Yes, plenty to brag about.

Beyond modesty, he’s always curious, living in a constant state of wonder about culture, politics, history, music. He’s a virtual expert on 1960s and 1970s rock and blues.

One of his favorite pastimes involves researching for projects, which also makes him a good listener. In group conversations, Kelley listens more than talks. When he does contribute, it’s to ask questions rather than assert opinions. He almost never takes center stage unless he’s leading a tour group in a museum.

Finally, he’s a generous artist. I’ve commissioned several Kelley illustrations over the years, and could never pay what they’re worth. He would ask how much I could afford, and I’d say “not much,” and he would still do it. I was always grateful.

His most recent major project involves the story of the Spirit Lake massacre, a horrific Native American attack on Okoboji and Spirit Lake settlers in 1857. He’s creating a graphic novel based on that story to be published next year, and he’s offering a talk at 2 p.m. today on its progress at the Cedar Falls Public Library.

It’s a chance to see a local/national artist in action as he completes a major work.

Scott Cawelti is an emeritus professor at the University of Northern Iowa. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the University of Northern Iowa.

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