While Dee J. Kelly was in law school in Washington, he worked for legendary U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, and could perhaps envision a life spent in the halls of power in the nation’s capital.
Both Rayburn, one of the most influential politicians to come out of Texas, and Mr. Kelly hailed from Bonham.
Any notion of becoming a career bureaucrat or Washington insider were quickly dispelled by Rayburn.
“When I got my law degree, he said, ‘Go home.’ It was the best advice I ever got,” Mr. Kelly recalled in a 2011 interview.
Mr. Kelly, who indeed went home and became one of Texas’ best-known attorneys and a political power broker, died unexpectedly Friday after collapsing at Shady Oaks Country Club.
He was 86.
“My father was bigger than life and a great father,” his son, Dee Kelly Jr. said Friday evening. “The whole family is pretty devastated right now.”
“Dee was a giant of Fort Worth,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “He was a counselor to politicians and to all of the influential people. He was the political strength of the city. He was a great man.”
Born in modest circumstances during the Depression in Bonham, Mr. Kelly became a founding partner of Kelly Hart & Hallman, the largest law firm in Fort Worth, with offices in Austin, Midland and New Orleans. The firm includes former appeals court judges and state district judges.
Among his clients over the years were the Bass family and the Moncriefs, John Justin, Anne Burnett Marion and John Marion, and AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines.
“More than one of the great citizens of Fort Worth and of Texas, Dee was one of the great mentors,” Ed Bass said in an email. “Everyone who worked with him learned a great deal from him: how to go about doing things the right way; how to be thoughtful, considerate and forthright; and about living your life true to the highest values.”
“He was a kingmaker, but for all the best reasons,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. “The two people I knew who were like that were Bob Bolen and Dee Kelly. They were always on the lookout for new talent and if you wanted to help Fort Worth, they wanted to help you help Fort Worth.”
Granger recalled a story Mr. Kelly told about how he had one suit when he started practicing law. At a gathering, someone spilled wine on it, and he spent the rest of the night worrying about what he was going to wear to work the next morning.
“Janice spent the rest of the night working to clean that suit,” Granger said. “He told that story and it said how someone can work their way up from nothing to becoming whatever they wanted.”
Sam Rayburn was just the beginning of his political contacts. Mr. Kelly knew all three presidents from Texas – Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. And one of his closest friends was the late Texas Gov. John Connally.
Note the difference of political parties there. A statement from Mr. Kelly’s law firm said that while Rayburn and Johnson were “conservative Democrats” with whom Mr. Kelly campaigned, “In later life, however, like many of his contemporaries, most notably his close friend Governor John Connally, he felt a stronger pull to the Republican Party’s conservatism.”
Connally’s speech writer, Julian Read, said Mr. Kelly became very much a part of the Connally group.
“He had the capability of melding politics and business,” Read said. “You meet some people who grow up in politics but know nothing of the business world, and some people who do well in business but can’t find the front door to the Capitol. Dee could move between the business and the political world, and it was a large part of his success.”
Mr. Kelly’s ambitions and interest in politics struck a future Democratic U.S. House speaker the first time he met Mr. Kelly in 1947 in Rayburn’s office. That was Jim Wright, then a state representative.
“I instinctively liked him,” Wright said in an interview several years ago. “I think he has made a positive contribution financially, politically, educationally and has developed a fine name all across Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He has a way of making and keeping friends and advising and helping candidates he prefers and likes.”
Mr. Kelly never wanted the notoriety, never sought out the spotlight, Tarrant County Judge Glenn Whitley said. He just wanted to serve his clients.
“He was the attorney for many of the influential people in Fort Worth. I think that’s the case because of his integrity and his willingness to serve his clients and community. He recently helped the county with the civil courts building. I think that meant a lot to him because he spent so much time in the law.
“He was just one of those men in town who found a way to bring people together and make things work with an eye toward bettering the community,” Whitley said.
The TCU connection
Mr. Kelly graduated from TCU in 1950 and was a trustee emeritus. The Dee J. Kelly Alumni and Visitors Center there was named for him and dedicated in 1996. It receives thousands of visitors and hosts alumni events annually.
TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini recalled that when he was interviewing for the position, Mr. Kelly could not be at the interview, so Kelly flew Boschini to the Denver airport for a quick meeting.
Mr. Kelly told him he would love Fort Worth, Boschini said.
“He was an amazing salesperson for Fort Worth and for TCU,” Boschini said. “He would get mad at me because I always called him ‘Mr. Kelly,’ never Dee like he wanted. I could never call him Dee. To me, he was always an icon.”
Mr. Kelly always talked really fast, sometimes so fast you never got a chance to respond to his questions, Boschini said.
“It would be ‘Victor, call so-and-so, he’s going to give you some money for TCU.’ And then he would say good-bye,” Boschini said.
They talked a lot, but always in increments no longer than four minutes, and there was this pattern to their conversations.
If you asked him to help with a problem and laid out the circumstances, he would pause to think, then give you three or four suggestions, good ones, on how your dilemma could be solved, Boschini said.
When you saw him again, he would expect a report. Did you call so-and-so? Did he give you a check? Then Mr. Kelly would say, ‘You’re all right,’ and he would leave to greet the rest of the room, Boschini remembered.
“He would always look out for me and I was grateful for that,” Boschini said. “He was one of those people who did not need the attention, he didn’t need to be the star. But he was and that’s what was so remarkable about him. He was a perpetual booster for Fort Worth and his enthusiasm was contagious.”
From Bonham to Fort Worth
Born March 7, 1929, in Bonham, Mr. Kelly was an only child. His father sold insurance and his mother worked in a cotton mill.
“I still believe there’s a lot of opportunity in this country if you’re willing to work for it,” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s one thing I always had was a willingness to work. And I guess I had a lot of ambition, too.”
After graduating from TCU, he went to George Washington University Law School and worked for Rayburn. He left during the Korean War and served in the Air Force from June 1951 to July 1953 when he was discharged as a first lieutenant.
He returned to law school and Rayburn’s office. During this time, he met Janice LeBlanc who was attending Southern Seminary in Virginia, according to information from his office. She was from a prominent Louisiana family that included a one-time candidate for governor. They married on Dec. 30, 1954, in Abbeyville, La.
Mr. Kelly’s first job as an attorney was with the Texas Railroad commission as legal examiner in the oil and gas division in Austin.
“It was about like taking an advanced degree in oil and gas,” Mr. Kelly said in a 1983 Star-Telegram interview.
After 18 months at the railroad commission and 14 months at the Fort Worth firm of Cantey & Hanger, Kelly was offered the general counsel position at Moncrief Oil Interests by W. A. Moncrief and W. A. Moncrief Jr., according to his office.
In 1963, he opened a one-room law office in the old Fort Worth National Bank Building.
Who’s Who of clients
According to the law office statement: “His first make-or-break case involved the estate of the late William Fleming, a pioneer oilman who discovered oil in the East Texas field. He represented Fleming’s daughter, Mary D. Fleming Walsh. He also won an oil and gas case for another pioneer oilman, the late Russell Maguire of Dallas.
“In 1968, the famous Fort Worth boot maker, John Justin, hired Mr. Kelly. The two quickly became close and Justin, who was chairman of the First Worth Corporation, soon appointed Mr. Kelly as general counsel for the company, which subsequently became Justin Industries. Justin and Mr. Kelly would remain close until Justin’s death in 2001.”
In 1970, Mr. Kelly began working for Bass Brothers Enterprises and became general counsel.
In 1979, Mr. Kelly, Mark Hart and Bill Hallman, along with Dan Settle, Robert Grable, Glen Johnson and Pete Geren, formed the firm of Kelly Hart & Hallman. Mr. Kelly’s practice at Kelly Hart consisted primarily of business litigation, oil and gas work and business transactions.
Mr. Kelly served on many for-profit boards, including AMR Corp., Sabre, Justin Industries and North Texas Bancshares. Among many nonprofit boards were the Van Cliburn Foundation, Sam Rayburn Foundation, UT Southwestern Moncrief Cancer Center and the Fort Worth Stock Show.
As an AMR board member and an attorney for American Airlines, Mr. Kelly was a staunch defender of the now defunct Wright Amendment, which limited flights from Dallas Love Field to Texas and four bordering states.
In the late 1990s during one of the legal fights between the two cities over flights out of Love Field, Dallas officials complained about Kelly’s role, calling it a conflict of interest. But Fort Worth officials said Kelly was the obvious general to lead their fight out of fear that dumping the Wright Amendment would weaken D/FW Airport and Tarrant County’s economy.
Kelly dismissed it all as an attempt “to run me out of the case.”
“My interests in this lawsuit are the interests of Fort Worth,” Mr. Kelly said. He added that he would withdraw from the case “if I ever became a liability” but declined to define what “a liability” would be.
From Washington Friday, longtime newsman Bob Schieffer sent a tribute to his fellow distinguished TCU alumnus:
“Dee Kelly was a kid of humble beginnings who hooked on with Sam Rayburn. ‘Mr. Rayburn,’ as Dee always called him, gave him a job and allowed him to go to law school at night. He went on to become a lawyer who was a confidant of governors, senators and presidents. He had two great loves — TCU and Fort Worth and what he did for both of them is immeasurable.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Cynthia Lynn Barnes; two sons, Dee J. Kelly Jr. and Craig L. Kelly; and seven grandchildren.
- 3 p.m. Wednesday at University Christian Church.
- The family will receive friends from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at River Crest Country Club.