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Remembering Dee Kelly, Powerhouse Fort Worth Lawyer

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Van Cliburn and Dee Kelly, right, talk with reporters after the memorial service for Perry R. Bass at the Bass Performance Halls on June 3, 2006.

Dee Kelly played a huge role in shaping the city of Fort Worth. He was laid to rest yesterday. His may not have been a household name, but yesterday every seat in University Christian Church at TCU was full. In attendance: One former governor – Rick Perry – and a host of civic leaders.

“If Dee had been born in an era when kings had been made, Dee Kelly would have been a king maker,” said Rev. Larry Thomas in his homily.

Thomas said Kelly was not as intimidating as his resume. He was driven, sure, and always busy. Thomas says Kelly always sat in the back row of the church – he’d get there early to get a seat next to the aisle. When Thomas finally asked, Kelly said did it because, “from this vantage point I can see what I want to see, hear what I need to hear, and get out of here when it’s time to go. And for Dee, that was ten minutes before worship was over.”

You’d have to be as on the move as Kelly was to get as much done as he did. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price says just before the funeral she on a panel discussing development projects in Fort Worth over the last few decades – places like the zoo and the cultural district, Sundance Square and Alliance Airport.

“There wasn’t a thing that we discussed that Dee didn’t have a hand in, whether it was his legal counsel, his dollars or his love,” Price said.

Oilman William “Tex” Moncrief met Kelly back in the 1950s. Kelly became general counsel for the Moncrief family oil company before he launched the law firm that still bears his name. The 95-year-old tells this story – he says one time, when the two of them were at lunch, Kelly found a piece of gum in his bottle of Coca-Cola.

“We were eating at a little place called Bailey’s Barbecue, three or four of us, and he said ‘I’m gonna sue them.’ I said Dee Kelly, you know that Coca-Cola is one of your clients,” Moncrief says.

Kelly's clients included American Airlines and Sabre, and he sat on the board of several foundations. Moncrief says Kelly was a hard worker and an excellent lawyer who was captivated by politics. He spent formative years working for legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

“I don’t know of anybody he made president or anything like that,” Moncrief says. “He could certainly help somebody politically. But he was just politically inclined. He loved it, loved to be around it.”

Kelly’s expansive network that included presidents, governors and a host of business leaders gave him political cache.

“He had the ear of the folks who made differences and who were very focused on good government and on strong community, and so he would help get the two together,” said County Judge Glen Whitley. He says Kelly was practical in his political activities, not ideological.

“He focused on the good for the community, not upon a party,” Whitley said. “And he always understood compromise.”

Kelly also spent a lot of time and money supporting TCU, where he studied. So it was fitting that at his funeral, the words of the TCU alma mater rang through the church.

Kelly was 86.

Photo: Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram