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A One-Of-A-Kind Sendoff For Herb Kelleher, The Heart Of Southwest Airlines

Mike Stone
Associated Press
In 2009, Southwest Airlines Chairman Emeritus Herb Kelleher prepared to blow a kiss to the audience at the company's annual shareholders meeting at their Dallas headquarters.

As soon as a drum line marched onto the stage, you knew this was not going to be a mournful, melancholy memorial service for Herb Kelleher.

Organizers called Tuesday’s sendoff a celebration of life for the co-founder of Southwest Airlines and it truly was that – a celebration for a man many considered larger than life.

A former Southwest executive even compared Kelleher to the Greek hero Heracles.

Friends, family and thousands of Southwest Airlines employees filled the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown Dallas Tuesday morning to remember Kelleher, who died earlier this month. Kelleher’s credited with getting low-cost flights off the ground.

“A big part of growing up Kelleher was living all things Southwest Airlines,” said Kelleher’s son-in-law, John Agather. “Southwest was more than a job to herb it was his purpose and mission in life.”

Family members joined Agather on stage and lifted small bottles of Wild Turkey – Kelleher’s favorite drink – and made a toast.

The crowd cheered.

Former Southwest president Colleen Barrett was among those who knew Kelleher best. They worked together for decades.

“I think most of you who knew us as a team realize we were the ying and yang of several other areas of life," Barrett told the crowd. "Truthfully, it somehow worked out so it complimented each other -- even though we were total opposites in many ways.”

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly called Kelleher a counselor, teacher, cheerleader, father – and hero.

Kelly said Kelleher built a solid financial foundation for Southwest – leading to 46 consecutive years of profits. No layoffs, no furloughs and no paycuts.

“Southwest Airlines and Herb were the archetype of today's low-cost airlines,” Kelly said. “Because of that now virtually everyone -- not just in America but around the world -- can afford to fly. The skies have truly been democratized.”

And that, he said, is just one part of Herb Kelleher’s legacy.

Watch Southwest's celebration of life for Herb Kelleher

Learn more about Kelleher.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.