Dee J. Kelly Sr.: a life of service to Fort Worth

Dee J. Kelly Sr. with grandchildren in 1986.
Dee J. Kelly Sr. with grandchildren in 1986. Star-Telegram archives

Dee J. Kelly Sr. was Fort Worth’s champion, and also our conscience.

When somebody needed to speak up for Fort Worth, whether to a company president or a U.S. president, Kelly would say it, usually in a succinct phone call.

Every executive has a story about getting a “call from Dee.” When he called, Kelly was always right. And whether he was calling to help Texas Christian University or a client or Fort Worth, there was no arguing.

Kelly wielded a half-century of political clout and legal skill the way few leaders ever have, clearing the way for the city, county and university he loved.

As an early chair of the old Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike and pioneer of the regional turnpike system, he helped bring the two cities together, and then he vigorously defended Fort Worth’s role in the North Texas region as an equal partner to Dallas.

As lawyer for American Airlines and Fort Worth, he repeatedly argued to uphold the original DFW Airport agreement calling for a single, shared regional passenger airport between the cities. Then he remained vigilant to ensure all partners stuck to the Wright Amendment compromise and the repeal agreement that enabled today’s limited legal use of Dallas Love Field.

For TCU, where he was student president coming out of Bonham High School, Kelly was a tireless supporter and fundraiser. In 1994, the Dee J. Kelly Alumni & Visitors Center was dedicated in his honor.

But to thousands of children and families across Tarrant County and Texas, his greatest contributions came in his service to the leading philanthropic families of Fort Worth. Kelly’s work helped spur the generous gifts of the Bass, (Kimbell) Fortson, Geren, Justin, (Burnett Tandy) Marion, Moncrief and many other families.

He directly helped establish what is now the Moncrief Cancer Institute, served on the first board of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and represented both the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and the Stock Show.

He is one of 22 legendary judges and lawyers to receive Texas Lawyer’s Professional Excellence Award: Lifetime Achievement on Nov. 2 in Houston, joining the most famous names in the annals of Texas justice.

As chairman of the Sam Rayburn Foundation, he also guided the University of Texas at Austin’s acquisition of the Sam Rayburn Museum in Bonham, a continuing tribute to his political mentor and the longest-serving speaker of the U.S. House.

During the Korean War, Kelly served his country as an Air Force officer. He continued to serve others, both in Washington and Fort Worth, until his death at 86 Friday from injuries suffered in a fall.

In the words of former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison: “He spent every day building up the city he loved.”

His service was unmeasurable.