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Dee J. Kelly, 1929-2015

🕐 7 min read

This biography provided by the Kelly Hart & Hallman law firm.

Dee J. Kelly, one of Fort Worth’s best-known attorneys, died in Fort Worth on October 2, 2015. He was 86. Kelly, who rose from modest roots to grow Kelly Hart & Hallman into the largest law firm in Tarrant County, with offices in Austin, New Orleans and Midland, became a trusted advisor to some of the nation’s most prominent and powerful citizens. He was also known as a powerful behind-the-scenes force in Texas politics. Kelly’s clients included Fort Worth’s Bass and Moncrief families, Anne Marion, the late John Justin and AMR Corp, the parent company of American Airlines. The work he did on their behalf elevated him and his firm to elite status in the legal community. His life­long involvement in politics would lead him to relationships with virtually every major contemporary political figure in Texas.

Mr. Kelly forged political relationships with Republicans and Democrats alike. At a young age, he had the opportunity to work for Sam Rayburn, the legendary Speaker of the U.S. House who shared Mr. Kelly’s Fannin County roots. Rayburn – a man who had an enormous impact on Mr. Kelly throughout his life – was a conservative Democrat and a close ally of Lyndon Johnson. Mr. Kelly would campaign with both men. 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. He was a friend and supporter of Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush and was well acquainted with all the governors of Texas from John Connally to Greg Abbott. Mr. Kelly was often a guest at the White House and the Governor’s Mansion in Austin.

Born March 7, 1929, in Bonham, Texas, Mr. Kelly grew up as an only child. His father sold insurance and his mother worked in a cotton mill. A child of the Depression, Mr. Kelly believed in effort and persistence above all else, and his work ethic became legendary. Clients recall him working day and night on their cases. A close associate, speaking of Mr. Kelly, said: “He had enormous energy, and he would win because he outworked the other lawyer.”

While working for Speaker Rayburn, Mr. Kelly pursued his passion for both the law and for politics, twin forces that would shape his professional life. After graduating from TCU, he attended law school at George Washington University and was later named a Distinguished Alumni from both Universities. TCU later named the Alumni Center after Mr. Kelly and George Washington University recently named the Law School Leaming Center in his honor. He gained an understanding of political power from the prominent people he knew in the Texas delegation to Congress, including Senators Lloyd Bentson, John Tower and John Comyn, plus House members like Jim Wright, Pete Geren and Kay Granger.

Mr. Kelly entered the Air Force during the Korean conflict in June 1951 and remained in service until his discharge as a First Lieutenant in July 1953. He then returned to work at Speaker Rayburn’s office until he graduated from law school. It was also during his time in the Speaker’s office that he met his future wife, Janice LeBlanc, who attended Southern Seminary in Virginia. The two would marry on December 30, 1954, and go on to have three children: a daughter, Cindy, and two sons, Dee Jr. and Craig, and seven grandchildren. Cindy lives in Austin, Craig is in real estate in Dallas/Fort Worth and Dee Kelly Jr. serves as Managing Partner at Kelly Hart & Hallman.

When Mr. Kelly and his bride Janice returned from their honeymoon, they were awaited by a job offer for Mr. Kelly at the Texas Railroad Commission. The Chairman of the Commission at the time was General Ernest 0. Thompson, a friend of Rayburn’s. Rayburn had recommended Mr. Kelly for the position as legal examiner in the oil and gas division. The newlyweds soon headed for Austin where Mr. Kelly would gain a fundamental understanding of the oil and gas business.

After 18 months at the Railroad Commission, and then 14 months in private practice, Kelly was offered the general counsel position at Moncrief Oil Interests by W. A. Moncrief and W. A. Moncrief, Jr.

Mr. Kelly would remain with the Moncriefs until 1963 when he entered private practice, opening a two-room office in the old Fort Worth National Bank Building. He was ready to make his own way, saying: “It was a time to produce or perish. My energy was at a high level.”

His first big 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.

Another early, well-known friend and client of Kelly’s was Anne Burnett Marion, who owns the fabled Four Sixes Ranch, along with a number of other ranching and oil and gas interests.

In 1970, Mr. Kelly began working for Perry and Sid Bass and what was then Bass Brothers Enterprises Inc. Subsequently, Sid Bass named Mr. Kelly general counsel of Bass Brothers Enterprises. It was through Sid Bass that Mr. Kelly was able to make an arrangement with Vinson & Elkins to assist him in representing clients in Fort Worth.

The attorneys that first arrived under this arrangement were Mark Hart and Bill Hallman. In 1979, they, along with Dan Settle, Robert Grable, Glen Johnson and Pete Geren, formed the firm of Kelly Hart & Hallman. Geren would later become a United States congressman and, then, Secretary of the Army.

Mr. Kelly’s practice at Kelly Hart consisted primarily of business litigation, oil and gas work and business transactions. He served on the boards of AMR Corporation, Sabre, Inc. and Justin Industries. He was chairman of the board of North Texas Bancshares, and, for 32 years, served on the Board of TCU, where he was also a member of the Executive Committee. Mr. Kelly was also a board member of the Jane and John Justin Foundation, Van Cliburn Foundation, the Sam Rayburn Foundation and the University of Texas Law School Foundation. He served on the Board of Advisors of George Washington University Law School, the Center for American and International Law and the Dean’s Advisory Board of Texas Wesleyan Law School. Mr. Kelly also served on the UT Southwestern Moncrief Cancer Center, the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, the Performing Arts Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Executive Roundtable and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. He was a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas.

Mr. Kelly was a recipient of numerous awards, including Fort Worth’s Outstanding Citizen Award, the city’s Outstanding Business Executive, the Horatio Alger Award, and the Blackstone Award, which was given by the Tarrant County Bar Association to the year’s outstanding lawyer. He has been included on the Woodward/White’s Best Lawyers in America List since 1990. The Longhorn Council of the Boy Scouts of America named him Citizen of the year in 2003. In 2013, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce gave Mr. Kelly and his firm the Spirit of Enterprise Award, the first time ever given to a law firm. The Texas Bar Foundation named him one of the outstanding 50 year lawyers in Texas. The Texas Lawbook named him one of the 50 Lions of the Texas bar.

In 1999, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram named Mr. Kelly as one of the ten most influential leaders in Tarrant County during the second half of the twentieth century.

Mr. Kelly is survived by his wife of 61 years, Janice LeBlanc Kelly, his daughter Cynthia Lynn Barnes, his sons Dee J. Kelly Jr. and his wife Dana and Craig L. Kelly, and his 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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