The community, from end to end, has lost a giant

Herb Kelly Sr
Herbert Valentine Kelly, Sr.

"I believe that if you're going to take from the community, you have to give back. ... My generation accepted civic involvement as a duty. If you needed someone to help out, you could say, 'This is your job.'"

- Herbert V. Kelly Sr.

When people started to call on Herb Kelly to help out, beginning back in the 1950s, he accepted the job, and the duty to contribute time and energy and expertise when and where the community needed it. But Mr. Kelly, who died Monday, worried that the generations that followed would not step up as his did.

Those who do step up will find big footprints to follow. Some of Mr. Kelly's can be found in places that are far removed from where you'd expect a tassel-loafered lawyer to tread.

None may be so revealing as his co-chairmanship of People to People. He was one of the small group that founded what they hoped would be an antidote to racial tension. He was the public face at the dinners and forums it sponsored to bring the community together. And he was, privately, its benefactor, paying for those dinners and speakers and, says his co-chair, McKinley Price, "everything."

Convening a racially mixed crowd in a high school cafeteria for what Price described as "frank conversations about topics no one else would talk about" may seem a long way from the boardrooms and executive enclaves that marked much of Mr. Kelly's civic service. But his reasons for being there were straightforward and heartfelt. It was a fundamental sense of fairness that propelled him to get involved, and stay involved.

Mr. Kelly believed that if people in one part of town enjoy advantages, people in other parts should have them, too. He believed that part of the solution to racial tensions lies in people getting to know each other, and People to People could provide the setting. People who know each other don't make assumptions, don't make stereotypes - they communicate. Mr. Kelly never stopped communicating, and just four days before he died, the People to People board celebrated his birthday, cake and singing and all.

Other contributions took a more traditional route. His resume goes on and on, with awards and service on this board and that, addressing a broad swath of the community and its needs, including the Red Cross, the Peninsula Community Foundation, the Virginia Living Museum and Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. He helped build the United Way and local Boy Scouts council into the strong organizations they are today. As a director, he helped guide Riverside Health System through two decades of great challenges and changes in health care. The state called on him, too, to serve on the Commonwealth Transportation Board. So did people across the community, for Mr. Kelly was something of a rainmaker, a man who made things happen.

"People have no idea," says Price, "what this man gave. ... We've lost a giant, a man who could get things done."

He "gave back" to his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, but his relationship went beyond the usual tie of alumni and donor, even of rector and member of the Board of Visitors, all of which he was. Former President Tim Sullivan traces the special ties that bound Mr. Kelly to the college to his childhood: He grew up in Williamsburg, and the campus was his playground. "His sense of the college began to develop at the same time as his sense of himself, and that added an extra measure of affection."

Fueling that affection were the many and deep bonds he developed with the people of the college.

"He enjoyed people, and he could penetrate them," says Sullivan. "He could read their thoughts and how they saw life. It wasn't abstract, for Herb, it was flesh and blood, and it was relationships."

The college reciprocated in esteem and affection, sometimes with academic pomp, as when it presented him with an honorary degree in 1993, and sometimes by giving him a front row seat in its community life, as when it invited him to preside over the 2005 homecoming parade from the grand marshal's carriage.

Herb Kelly loved the law, and made no bones of his enthusiasm for doing his job in the judicial system: "We're there for the defendant no matter how guilty he is. We're there to get him off. That's our job." he told the William and Mary Alumni Association News.

For all he did for others, Mr. Kelly was his own man, one of a kind. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he admitted that one of the reasons he never went into politics was because, "I would probably make a terrible politician because I would tell you exactly what I think." Indeed, he did.

Between his height and his bearing, that silver hair and, of course, the way he wielded that cane, Mr. Kelly struck a figure of dignity and authority - tempered by a no-nonsense modesty and a true-Virginian grace.

Mr. Kelly is one of those rare people who fully occupy their roles as citizens and community members. We are the better for it.

Published: February 22, 2007