Updated: Jul 12
John B. Kelly Sr., better known as Jack Kelly, was the son of Irish emigrants. His Parents emigrated from the west coast of Ireland to America in the 1860's. From his humble beginnings in Philadelphia's slums, Jack rose up to achieve success beyond his wildest dreams. His daughter, Grace Kelly, would become one of Hollywood's first iconic female stars. And, his son(Jack Jr.), would follow in his Fathers footsteps all the way to the Olympic Games. Jack Kelly's story truly is one of success beyond boundaries. The definition of the American Dream. In 1956, Jack's daughter, Grace, became the Princess of Monaco after marrying Prince Rainier III in a lavish ceremony in the Principality. In a single generation, the Kelly's had gone from the bottom rung of the social ladder, all the way to Royalty. To define Jack by his daughters success would be unfair to his own achievements. Long before Grace ever achieved world wide fame, he had already reached the pinnacle of sport, business and politics in his native Philadelphia and beyond. Jack was a three time Olympic champion, served in World War 1, and even found time to create and develop a multi-million dollar company based out of his native city of Philadelphia. Incredible achievements for anyone, let alone an Irish-American boy, who came from such humble beginnings. His story is often over-shadowed by the life of his daughter, but his success cannot be underestimated. Jack was a true icon for the Irish-American community of the early 20th century. It was he who shone the torch on the path to success for so many successful Irish-Americans who followed him.
Kelly's upbringing was similar to most children of emigrant families in Philadelphia at the time. Money was tight, and every penny was hard earned. Jack was one of 10 children, and learned early in his life that if he wanted to make anything of himself, he'd have to work harder than anyone else. He once described 'resilience' as his greatest attribute, and that resilience was developed during those difficult childhood days in Phili'. At an early age, it became obvious that Jack was a gifted athlete. He tried his hand at many different sports, such as Basketball and Football, but it was rowing that brought him his greatest success. Before he was drafted into the U.S military in 1917, Jack was already a national champion and regarded as the best rower in America. Although he couldn't focus on rowing during his military service, Jack wanted to use his time in the Army to further develop his tall, muscular physique. Hard physical training ensured that he left the Army as an athlete capable of competing for Olympic glory. Jack turned his attention to boxing while in the Army and as you might expect, he excelled to a 12-0 record when fighting against fellow soldiers. After his discharge, however, Jack hung up his boxing gloves and returned to his first love, rowing. He went on the win double-gold at the 1920 Olympic games in Antwerp, and another gold medal followed at the Paris games, four years later.
With his place in U.S Olympic history secured, Jack shifted his focus to becoming a successful businessman. Armed with his reputation as a famous athlete, and his well renowned self-promotional skills, Jack was destined for even more success. Having trained as a bricklayer before the war, his expertise lay in the construction industry, and it was there he focused his attention. He set up a brickwork contracting company named John B. Kelly Inc.. The company would go on to become one of the largest building companies on the East Coast of America. Everything Jack touched inevitably turned to gold, and his popularity across America continued to grow throughout the early part of the 20th century. He quickly became renowned for his business sense, and ability to ensure payment was received for all completed work. In an era when money tended to disappear with regularity, Kelly wasn't keen to lose out. One of his most famous tactics was to instruct employees to build thin panes of glass into the chimney pots of houses built by the company. When his customers inevitably rang for help from smoke filled sitting rooms, he would simply reply, "we'll be there, as soon as the cheque clears". This tactic was known to be successful in increasing the speed of payment,substantially in some cases! Once the payment was received, Jack would direct his workers to drop a stone down the chimney pot to shatter the glass. Problem solved! That was Jack Kelly, a master of all trades.
Kelly married a German-American by the name of Margaret Majer in 1924. Majer herself was a famous face around Philadelphia, her campaigns for equality for female athletes resulted in the first female sports being allowed to take place at the University of Pennsylvania. Jack and his wife went on to have have four children together. The most famous of which, was Grace of course. His son, Jack Jr, was also an outstanding rower and went on to compete in no fewer than four Olympic games representing the U.S. Both Father and son have since been granted places in the 'Rowing hall of Fame' as testament to their achievements. In Jack Sr's later years, his success continued. President Roosevelt named him the 'National Physical fitness Director' in 194. An extremely prestigious position which displayed his national appeal. Kelly was a huge believer in the benefits of physical fitness, and his work in the role was hugely commended. Jack Kelly continued to be play a huge part in the politics of his native Philadelphia right up until his death in 1960, aged 70 years. At one point, he was agonisingly close to becoming a Democratic Mayor of Philadelphia. A the time, the city was heavily Republican, another testament to his popularity. After his death, the city of Philadelphia erected a statue of Kelly on the banks of the Schuylkill River where he first learned to row. To this day, 'U.S Rowing' presents a medal each year to the athlete who best displays Jack Kelly's ideals. The medal has been named the 'Jack Kelly medal', in his honour. Jack Kelly lived an incredible life. He travelled the world, won Olympic medals, served his country, and throughout those successes he remained true to his Irish-American roots. He was without doubt one of the first Irish-American success stories in the States. A true beacon of hope for a community that was crying out for a hero. His legacy will live on, as long as his story is told…
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Slán go fóill.