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August 30, 2014, 8:17 am

Jack Kelly’s life left mark on the city

The son of Irish immigrants who grew up along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia at the turn of the 20th century, Jack Kelly became a three-time gold medal Olympian, a political maverick and the millionaire father of a princess. Danial J. Boyne’s intriguing biography, “Kelly, A Father, A Son, an American Quest” (Lyons Press, $16.96), follows the native son’s profound success in life and sports. Readers are introduced to members of the Kelly clan, including Jack’s daughter Grace, who becomes globally famous in her own right despite her father’s wishes, and his son, Jack Kelly Jr., upon whose shoulders is laid the greatest challenge of all — to carry on the Kelly tradition of championship rowing.

“The story of Jack Kelly Sr. and his long quest for international recognition in rowing is a colorful legend that has been passed along so many times in the sports world that it has become, like his statue, somewhat larger than life,” notes Boyne. “Yet, among the general public, the name Kelly registers very little, if anything, unless it is made in reference to his famous daughter, the actress Grace Kelly. Most people are unaware of how this Philadelphia patriarch rose from working-class Irish roots to become not only the most famous American oarsman of all time, but also a millionaire businessman whose brick company was one of the largest on the Eastern seaboard. Most are unfamiliar with his noteworthy political career, which paved the way for the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, or with his two brothers, George and Walter, who worked beside him in a local carpet mill as children and became famous as well — one as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and the other as a popular vaudevillian. Many do not even realize that Kelly Drive, the long road that runs along the west bank of the Schuylkill River, was named after his equally lauded son, Jack Jr., or ‘Kell.’”

“Kelly” is a classic tale of grit and perseverance, and the clash between Old-World privilege and New World courage played out on so many fronts — including the watery battlefield of rowing, where Kelly first chose to forge his strength of character.

“Rowing was the cornerstone of Kelly’s life and the initial way that he developed the qualities of self-discipline and perseverance that lent him the ability to overcome many formidable obstacles in adulthood,” explained Boyne. “A gifted athlete who could have chosen any number of physical disciplines, Kelly settled on this ancient and odd sport where the athlete cannot see who or what lies ahead, and contact with another is forbidden. Under such restrictions, the oarsman’s focus almost by necessity travels inward, requiring intense concentration and a certain moral resolve. This mental and physical training may have given Kelly the ability to succeed at a high level in various pursuits, although it may have also left him blind, at times, to the impact of his success on those around him. Donning a green hat to proudly signify his Irish lineage, Kelly also chose a color that was appropriate in representing many other aspects of his character: his naivete, in assuming he could tackle any task put before him; his sense of competitive envy toward his rivals; a serenity that came from achieving financial well-being and finally, a sense of renewal in witnessing the success of his four children — particularity his son, Jack Jr. Roughly stated, these four qualities represented the four seasons of Kelly’s life.”


Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .