Riverside Loses A Great Leader

Newport News - Riverside Regional Medical Center. The Virginia Living Museum. The CollegeĀ of William and Mary. NASA Langley Research Center. People to People. And the list goes on.

Herb Kelly Sr
Herbert Valentine Kelly, Sr.
Herbert Valentine Kelly Sr. touched them all. He sat on the boards, gave advice or made phone calls on their behalf. But yet he rarely accepted public recognition for his work.

"Whether you're looking at health or education or civic groups like People to People, Herb Kelly is all over just about every aspect of this community that's good," said Timothy J. Sullivan, former president of the College of William and Mary and current president and chief executive officer of The Mariners' Museum.

Mr. Kelly, a prominent Newport News lawyer often called the Peninsula's elder statesman, died Monday night at his home. He was 87.

He died as he predicted he would 11 years ago, when he told the Daily Press that he would practice law until the end. "He was at work yesterday," Richard Donaldson, managing partner at Kelly's Newport News law firm, said Tuesday.

Born on Feb. 14, 1920 -- Valentine's Day, in Valentine Va. -- Mr. Kelly grew up in Williamsburg, the son of police Chief William H. Kelly. He went on to earn his undergraduate degree in 1941 and his law degree in 1942 from William and Mary. Upon graduation he joined the law firm that would one-day carry his name: Jones, Blechman, Woltz & Kelly. There, after a detour to serve in the Army in World War II, Mr. Kelly practiced law for more than 60 years. Among one of his more prominent legal cases was his 1993 defense of Allen Iverson, who was charged in a brawl in a bowling alley while a basketball star at Bethel High School.

Lawyers who worked with or against him all said Mr. Kelly was a master in the courtroom.

"He was fun to watch," said Robyn Hansen, who was the first woman named partner at Mr. Kelly's law firm.

Willard M. Robinson Jr., a former commonwealth's attorney who opposed Mr. Kelly in the courtroom, in particular remembers one case from the 1960s. Robinson was prosecuting a man for robbery, and he said he was sure he had won the case. That is until Kelly made his closing arguments.

"I thought we presented a good case," Robinson said. "But his were the best closing arguments I ever heard. He basically reached into the penitentiary and set the man free."

But Mr. Kelly might be as well remembered for his community service.

"He was a smart, thorough and energetic attorney in the practice of law, and in his approach to community service," Donaldson said. "He truly believed in the ability of all people to do well if given the opportunity. He worked tirelessly, not only with his time, but with his money, to improve life in Newport News and the greater Peninsula area.

"The community and the legal field have lost a giant," he said.

In fact, Mr. Kelly was a big man -- 6 feet 4 inches tall often described as a Virginia gentleman who was so proud of his Irish heritage that the screen saver on his computer was kelly green with the saying: "God smiles on Irishmen."

"He was a man entirely larger than life," Sullivan said. "He filled up every space he ever occupied. When he walked into a room, you knew there was a man with special character."

And Mr. Kelly walked into many rooms on the Peninsula. He was a former member of the Board of Visitors and former rector of the College of William and Mary. He was past president of the Newport News Rotary Club, the Peninsula Sports Club, the Peninsula Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Greater Peninsula NOW board and the James River Country Club. He was past campaign chairman of the Peninsula United Fund and a former member of the national Board of the United Community funds and Councils of America. He was a member of the Board of Advisors of the Virginia Living Museum, chairman of the board of Riverside Regional Medical Center and a member of the Riverside Health System Board.

But Mr. Kelly may be best known as co-founder and co-chairman of People to People, a community group organized to get people talking about race in a positive way.

"He was the backbone of People to People," said dentist and People to People co-founder McKinley Price. "People don't realize that he personally financed that organization. When we have speakers, dinners, programs, we almost never raised funds. He just did it on his own."

Price, who is black, said he remembered an early conversation he and Mr. Kelly had about race.

"He found out some personal things about me -- that my newspaper was delivered later than his, that I couldn't get a pizza delivered to my house -- and when he saw those inequities between communities, it was a motivational factor to change that," he said. "He didn't like that what was going on in one community was different from what was going on in another community."

Price and others said Mr. Kelly's death would be felt throughout the Peninsula, but that his years of contributions would live on.

"I feel very sad," Sullivan said. "But also I feel deep gratitude to all that he's given to so many for so long. We've been blessed by a special life. You have to feel great sadness at his passing, but also great gratitude at what he gave. "We won't see another one like him."

Published: February 20, 2007