John B. Kelly Sr.

For other people named John Kelly, see John Kelly (disambiguation).
John B. Kelly Sr.

John B. Kelly Sr.
Personal information
Full name John Brendan Kelly Sr.
Nickname(s) Jack
Nationality American
Born (1889-10-04)October 4, 1889
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
Died June 20, 1960(1960-06-20) (aged 70)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting place Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

John Brendan Kelly Sr. (October 4, 1889 June 20, 1960), also known as Jack Kelly, was one of the most accomplished American rowers in the history of the sport of rowing. He was a triple Olympic Gold Medal winner, the first to be so in the sport of rowing. He won 126 straight races in the single scull (1x). The Philadelphia-based Kelly also was a multimillionaire in the bricklaying and construction industry. He was the father of Grace Kelly, actress and Princess of Monaco (thus maternal grandfather of Albert II, Prince of Monaco), and of John B. Kelly Jr., an accomplished rower in his own right.

Early life

Kelly was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was one of ten children of John Henry Kelly (1847-1897), an Irish immigrant from Newport, County Mayo, Ireland who came to the United States in 1869, and his wife Mary Ann Costello (1852-1926), also a native of Ireland, who arrived in the U.S. in 1867.[1]

In 1908, he began bricklaying in Philadelphia and he also learned to row on the Schuylkill River. By 1916, Kelly was a national champion and the best sculler in the United States when, as part of the World War I call up, Kelly joined United States Army as a private. He rose to the rank of lieutenant when he was discharged in 1918. While in the army, he entered the armed forces boxing tournament as a heavyweight and ran up a 12-0 record before being waylaid by a broken ankle. Future World Professional Boxing Champion Gene Tunney won the tournament. In later years, Kelly would kid Tunney: "Aren't you lucky I broke my ankle?"

Following his army discharge in 1918, Kelly continued his dominance in the single scull and started a brickwork contracting company in Philadelphia and was on his way to becoming a millionaire. A self-promoter, Kelly coined the slogan, "Kelly for Brickwork," which was often seen at local construction sites.

Kelly developed a technique to ensure payment for his brickwork from less-than-trustworthy real estate developers. Kelly's crews would mortar a single pane of glass into each chimney they built. When new home owners would complain to realtors about smoke backing into their houses from the fireplaces, and the developers would then complain to Kelly, he would reply "I'll take care of it when your check clears." Once paid, Kelly would send crews out to drop a brick down each chimney they'd constructed, smashing the glass panes and solving the problem.

In 1919, Kelly played professional football for the Holmesburg Athletic Club. The team would go on to win the 1919 and 1920 Philadelphia City Championship. In a 1919 game against a team from Camden, New Jersey, Kelly scored three touchdowns in just the first quarter of the game.

Snub by Henley followed by Olympic Gold

In 1920, Kelly applied to race in the Diamond Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta. At the time, he was one of the most popular figures in the sport: He had won six U.S. National Championships and in the midst of his 126-race winning streak.[2]

The Henley regatta, which is held annually on the River Thames in Henley, England, was the most prestigious event in rowing. Kelly's application was rejected in part because he had done manual labor as a bricklayer. The rejection became widely publicized. This led Kelly to seek and gain redemption by going to the 1920 Summer Olympics which he had originally not planned to attend.

Rejection by the Henley Royal Regatta

Kelly was surprised that his entry was rejected. Kelly always maintained that he had been assured by United States rowing officials that his entry would be accepted. In the 1950s he wrote to Jack Beresford, the winner of the 1920 Henley Diamond Sculls race, the following:

"Russell Johnson, secretary of the NAAO [the governing board for U.S. rowing] had an arrangement with the Henley officials that they would approve all entries from the United States, which he had made during his visit to England in the winter of 1919-20... I asked him to check with the Stewards to see if they would accept my entry because in my earlier days I had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer. He contacted four of them and they told him to send my entry in; the war had changed the old rule and everything would be all right".[3]

His application, however, was rejected. The minutes of the regatta's Committee of Management for June 3, 1920 read: "The list of entries ... outside of the United Kingdom under Rule iv was presented ... and received with the exception of Mr J.B. Kelly of the Vesper Boat Club to compete in the Diamond Sculls, which was refused under the resolution passed by the Committee on 7th June, 1906 'viz' 'That no entry from the Vesper Boat Club of Philadelphia, or from any member of their 1905 crew be accepted in future': Mr Kelly was also not qualified under Rule I (e) of the General Rules (manual labour)."

The regatta committee's reference to Vesper Boat Club related to a dispute which arose following the 1905 regatta when the Vesper's entry to the Grand Challenge Cup for eights was deemed to have breached the regatta's rule on amateurism for using a public subscription to raise travel money.[4] The result was a ban on entries from Vesper which continued to remain in force in 1920.

As the regatta committee's minutes also note, it was rejecting Kelly because he was deemed ineligible because of his bricklaying work. The regatta's rules on amateurism excluded anyone ... who is or ever has been ... by trade or employment for wages a mechanic, artisan or labourer.[5] Two days before he was due to sail to the UK, with his passage booked and his boat boxed, Kelly received a telegram which said: "Entry rejected; letter follows." He never received the letter.[6] The Henley Stewards later declared that they had informed the governing board for U.S. rowing as soon as Kelly's entry was processed, and that it was not their fault if the information was not passed on.[5]

The affair was widely reported, especially in London, New York and Philadelphia. The Stewards of Henley Royal Regatta came in for heavy criticism. One interpretation was that they had excluded Kelly because they did not want an American to win the Diamonds. The publicity made Kelly widely popular and would later help his bricklaying business. The ban on Vesper was rescinded soon afterward and in 1937 the references in the Henley rules excluding manual labourers, mechanics, artisans and menial duties were deleted. In 2003, the Princess Grace Challenge Cup was launched as an event for women's quadruple sculls both in recognition of John B. Kelly and in memory of his daughter, Grace.

Kelly v. Beresford, 1920 Olympics

Redemption at the 1920 Olympics

When he first made his application to race at Henley, Kelly told the press that if his entry was accepted, he would go to Henley and most likely would skip the Olympics.[7] On learning of his rejection, Kelly was surprised and angered and stated: "I had made all the arrangements to sail for England ... I'll go to the Olympics now for sure. I want to get a crack at the man who wins the diamond sculls."[8]

Kelly soon had his chance, representing the United States at the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. In a hard-fought race, he won the single scull event, extracting a measure of revenge by defeating the winner of the Diamond Sculls, British sculler Jack Beresford. Beresford was one of the most talented oarsmen of the day and would go on to win medals at five Olympics. The race, one of the closest in Olympic history, featured a dramatic duel down the stretch with Kelly winning by a second. Kelly and Beresford would go on to become good friends. Half an hour after the singles final, Kelly teamed with his cousin Paul Costello to win the double scull (2x) race, a feat which has never been repeated at the Olympic games. After his Olympic victory, Kelly purportedly mailed his racing cap to King George V with the note, "Greetings from a bricklayer", for having been snubbed at Henley.

Repeat at the 1924 Olympics

In 1924, Kelly and Costello repeated their success, winning the double-scull event at the Summer Olympics in Paris. This made Kelly the first rower to win 3 Olympic gold medals and one of the most famous and successful athletes of his generation.


The Kelly family house in East Falls was built by John B. Kelly in 1929.

After a long courtship, Kelly married Margaret Katherine Majer (1898–1990) in 1924, daughter of Carl Majer and Margaretha Berg from Germany, former fashion model, who was an instructor and coach of women's teams in the University of Pennsylvania Physical Education Department. Majer's family was Lutheran and she converted to Catholicism prior to the marriage. They had four children: Margaret Katherine (1925–1991), John Brendan Jr. (1927–1985), Grace Patricia (1929–1982) and Elizabeth Anne (1933–2009).

John B. Kelly Jr. won the Diamond Sculls at Henley in 1947 and 1949. Jack Jr. won the James E. Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in the U.S. in 1947 for his accomplishments. Jack Jr. would go on to represent the United States at the 1948, 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games. Jack Jr. would win the bronze medal in the single scull at the 1956 Olympics. The younger Kelly would continue to be involved in amateur sports and eventually was appointed as President of the United States Olympic Committee.

Kelly was also the father of Grace Kelly, an Academy Award-winning actress who became princess of Monaco when she married Prince Rainier in 1956. Kelly purportedly gave Prince Rainier a two million-dollar ($2,000,000) dowry for his daughter's marriage. Kelly is the maternal grandfather of Albert II, the reigning monarch of Monaco. When Grace's engagement to Prince Rainier was announced, Kelly quipped: "I told the Prince that royalty didn't mean that much to us, and that I hoped he wouldn't run around the way some Princes do."

Kelly was the model for the character of George Kittredge, Tracy Lord's brash, up-and-coming, man-of-the-people fiancé, in Philip Barry's 1939 Broadway comedy The Philadelphia Story. Grace Kelly played Tracy Lord in the 1956 Cole Porter movie musical version, High Society.

Kelly's brother George Kelly was a popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Kelly started his brickwork business with a loan from his brother George, and another brother Walter C. Kelly, who was a popular vaudeville actor.

Later life

Sculpture of Kelly in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Kelly was actively involved in city politics, including chairmanship of the Philadelphia County Democratic Party in 1937 and ran for Mayor of Philadelphia in 1935. At the time, Philadelphia was a heavily Republican city, but he came close to winning.

He was a commissioner and later president of the Fairmount Park Commission, which administered Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, one of the largest municipal parks in the world. In 1941, President Roosevelt named the still popular Kelly as the National Physical Fitness Director, a post he held throughout World War II. Kelly was a strong advocate for physical fitness for all Americans, and in particular those inducted into the military.

Kelly was Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy from 1935 to 1940, and was president of the NAAO, the then governing board for U.S. rowing, from 1954 through 1955. Kelly is the only rower who is a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the United States Rowing Hall of Fame, having been elected in 1956 at the same time as his son Jack Jr.

Philadelphia erected a prominent statue of Kelly near the finish line of the Schuylkill River course that Kelly rowed. It is located just off of the scenic "Kelly Drive", which is named for Kelly's son Jack Jr. Every year, USRowing bestows the Jack Kelly Award on an individual who represents the ideals that Kelly exemplified, including superior achievement in rowing, service to amateur athletics and success in their chosen profession.

Achievements and awards


  2. Penn A.C.'s History of Philadelphia Rowing
  3. Page, Geoffrey (1991). Hear the boat sing: the history of Thames Rowing Club and Tideway Rowing. The Kingswood Press. ISBN 0-413-65410-9.
  4. NYTimes, June 25, 1906
  5. 1 2 Burnell, Richard (1989). Henley Royal Regatta: A celebration of 150 years. William Heinemann. ISBN 0-434-98134-6.
  6. Dodd, Christopher (1987). Henley Royal Regatta. Stanley Paul. ISBN 0-09-172801-0.
  7. NYTimes, April 28, 1920
  8. NYTimes, June 5, 1920

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