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Dee Kelly Sr., renowned lawyer, civic leader, powerbroker dead at 86

Dee Kelly Sr., who built his law firm into the largest in Fort Worth and wielded political influence from Austin to Washington, died unexpectedly on Friday.

Kelly, 86, collapsed at Shady Oaks Country Club, and died on Friday afternoon.

“Among the many attributes of Dee Kelly, the best he possessed was his loyalty,” said Richard L. Connor, chairman of the parent company of Fort Worth Business, DRC Media. “Once you were a client or a friend, especially a friend, it was a lifetime commitment. He has literally been my best friend in Fort Worth for 30 years. Our relationship was never compromised by differences in politics, favorite football teams, or by my newspaper’s coverage of the news or the opinion columns I’ve written over the years.”

Kelly’s influence was wideranging, noted Victor J. Boschini Jr., chancellor of Texas Christian University.

“It’s the end and era. You can’t overestimate what he did for Fort Worth and what he did for TCU,” he said.

Kelly, founding partner of Kelly Hart & Hallman, was born in Bonham. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University and attended law school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He received both universities’ Distinguished Alumni Award. In 1994, the Alumni Center at TCU was dedicated in his honor.

Kelly began a solo law practice in Fort Worth in 1964, and in 1979 he founded Kelly, Hart & Hallman PC with Mark L. Hart Jr. and William P. Hallman Jr. 

TCU named the Dee J. Kelly Alumni and Visitors Center after him.

“He loved the Kelly Center so much, he treated it like his house. He would call up and say, ‘Do you think we need new carpet in there?’ That’s just the way he was,” said Boschini.

A TCU graduate, Kelly also served on the Board of Trustees.

“He was very interested in academics at TCU,” said Boschini, “but he was also very interested in sports. He saw the big picture.”

Kelly was born of modest means and got his first taste of politics working at the side of another Bonham man, the late speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn. Kelly had drawn Rayburn’s attention after giving a speech about him while in high school.

His time with Rayburn fueled Kelly’s passion for politics and he learned the delicate arts of leadership, compromise, and the use of power with dignity, respect and good manners.

When reminiscing with friends, Kelly liked to recall the time Rayburn called him into the speaker’s office and acknowledged that the young man had just graduated from law school while attending night classes.

“I told Mr. Rayburn that, in fact, I had graduated,” said Kelly. “And then he asked what I intended to do next.”

“Why continue working for you, Mr. Rayburn,” Kelly replied.

Rayburn told him he could no longer work for him because Texas needed him.

“Go back to Texas,” he said. ” You are needed more there than here.

Kelly returned and at first worked for the State Railroad Commission before settling in Fort Worth and opening his one-man law practice. Eventually, every local, state, and national candidate for office sought his advice and support and today his firm has offices in Fort Worth, Austin, Midland and in New Orleans.

He worked both sides of the political aisle and did so with humble aplomb.

Kelly was know as a shrewd negotiator and a highly skilled courtroom attorney. His oratorial skills made him successful in the courtroom and a much sought after dinner speaker. He represented virtually all of the most influential men and women in Fort Worth, including the Bass family, the Tex Moncrief family, and Anne Marion.

As a lawyer, Kelly represented a vast array of individuals, institutional clients and municipalities in a broad range of civil litigation before state and federal courts at both the trial and appellate levels. He litigated matters pertaining to oil and gas, fiduciary duties, breach of contract, defamation and banking matters. He also assisted clients with transactional issues pertaining to corporate and securities and energy matters.

Kelly served on the boards of AMR Corporation, SABRE Inc., Justin Industries Inc. and TCU. He was appointed to the initial board of the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which honored him with its first-ever Champion Award for outstanding leadership in the fight against cancer. He most recently served on the boards of the Jane and John Justin Foundation, Performing Arts Fort Worth Inc., the Van Cliburn Foundation, the Sam Rayburn Foundation and the board of UT Southwestern Moncrief Cancer Center. He formerly served on the boards of the University of Texas Law School Foundation and the Center for American and International Law.

Among his many honors, Kelly received Fort Worth’s Outstanding Citizen Award, Fort Worth’s Outstanding Business Executive, the Horatio Alger Award and the Blackstone Award presented by the Tarrant County Bar Association. He was named a Power Attorney by Fort Worth Business and was honored by the Texas Bar Foundation with the 50 Year Lawyer Award.

In 1999, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram named Kelly one of the 10 most influential leaders in Tarrant County in the second half of the 20th century. Kelly recently was selected to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Texas Lawyer. The award recognizes lawyers who have made their mark on the legal profession throughout Texas. It distinguishes attorneys who have had, or continue to have, extraordinary careers that have affected and shaped the legal profession.

Kelly was involved with political leaders from Washington, D.C. to Austin to Fort Worth.

“Dee Kelly has always been extremely helpful to me, both as a mentor and as someone whose vision I shared in regard to public service,” said Gary Fickes, Tarrant County Commissioner for Precinct 3. “I have always felt that Dee Kelly was the gold standard in Tarrant County. If he was on your side, you were moving in the right direction.”

Kelly is survived by his wife of 61 years, Janice LeBlanc Kelly; his daughter Cynthia Lynn Barnes; his sons Dee J. Kelly Jr. and wife Dana and Craig L. Kelly and wife Robyn; grandchildren Ben F. Barnes II, Kelly Barnes, Cate Kelly, Lynn Kelly, Camille Kelly, Patrick Kelly and Ryan Kelly.

The family will receive friends at River Crest Country Club on Monday, Oct. 5, from 4-6 p.m. Services will be at 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, at University Christian Church.

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