Thursday, July 2, 2020

Thomas P. Kelly, Jr. (1936-2020).

My dad recently passed away. Below is an obituary I wrote for him for the Sonoma County Bar Association Journal, appearing in the Summer 2020 volume.  


Thomas P. Kelly, Jr. passed away February 24, 2020. A native Texan, he worked his way through the University of Texas as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, earning business and law degrees, and developing a lifelong love of Longhorn football. He served in the Air Force as a JAG in Vietnam, and then worked in San Francisco as a railroad lawyer. Ambitiously, in the late 1960’s, he moved to Santa Rosa with his fiancĂ© Joyce knowing no-one. He joined Anderson & McDonald (now the Abbey firm), where he would be a partner for thirty years, before running his own practice for twenty more.

There were many ways people came to know Tom. He was a lector at St. Eugene’s Cathedral, and a Contracts and Corporations professor at the Empire Law School, where he was one of the founding faculty. Tom was a devoted counselor for the Eritrean community, many of whom considered him one of their own. A strong advocate for Sonoma County business, he particularly championed the construction industry. Charity was always a part of his life, especially on behalf of parochial schools and the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy.

The Kelly Family, ~1980. Tom & Joyce, with, L-R, Tom III, Heather, and John.
Tom and his wife Joyce were a study in contrasts. He was the dark haired Catholic Republican Texan, she the blonde Protestant Democratic Englishwoman. Perhaps such a pairing could only have occurred in San Francisco in the 60’s, where they had worked together and fallen in love. Their marriage, at his passing three months shy of their 50th anniversary, produced three children, Heather, Tom III and John, all of whom followed him into the profession.

For Tom, law practice was like basketball. He had honed that skill as a short, thin, awkward teenager in San Antonio. He shot 10,000 free throws then, developing an outstanding jumper, and earning a spot on his high school team. Decades later, arriving home to his kids playing hoops, he would call for the ball, and shoot from an impossible distance. Invariably, he hit. Was it skill? Was it luck? Was it both? Did it matter?

His day was generally conducted like clockwork. Even on the weekends, he could be found at his desk at the office at 9 A.M., answering his telephone with a curt “law office,” without any other salutation. His memory was fantastic (at one time he was jokingly referred to as the master of the obscure statute), but his organizational skills were slightly less so. Possessed of a hearty laugh, intelligence was the coin of his realm, and education his marker of achievement. A bit long winded, his conversations always seemed to turn to railroads, where his face would light up like a child delighted with a train set on Christmas.

Tom (UT-Law) with daughter Heather (U-Chicago Law), ~1992.

Tom was tough to your face, and praised you behind your back. Imperious in the courtroom, he was humble with clients. A reservist for thirty years, retiring as a Colonel, his Air Force support staff were continually bemused by the contrast. In jest, they got him the license plate “HMBLTOM.” He placed it on his Porsche with pride. Sometimes called a “grumpy Matlock” (despite being a civil not criminal practitioner), the gruff exterior concealed a deeply religious respect for the value of every human life. A military officer and student of the history of warfare, the core of his spiritual values was still betrayed by his longtime computer password, “peacenow.”
His weakness was Rocky Road ice cream, and while no gourmet, he could cook fantastic San Antonio- style enchiladas and pretty good Chicken and Walnuts. He loved his wife’s Joyce’s garden, although lamenting his own brown thumbs. An outdoorsman when young (missed Eagle Scout by a whisker), he nevertheless refused to ski, claiming to have broken his leg on the bunny slope at Squaw. Stern in confrontation over values in court, he melted in the presence of children, almost always accurately guessing their age (with an extra year for good measure). He would strike up conversations with them, never talking down. Instead, he always made them feel “big.” He had been the littlest one himself once, of course.

Tom & Grandkids, L-R Clara, Miles, Allegra, Siena & Ruby, 2019.
But it was law practice to which he gave his first, best, and ultimately final measure of devotion. For him, practicing law was fun. It was the best single thing you could do. He couldn’t see why anyone would do anything else. Growing up with him, cross-examination could come at any time, and his “ah-ha!” at his kids’ admissions against interest revealed the twinkle in the eye of a man in his element. Perhaps the greatest tribute to him is the large number of his students at the Empire College of Law who spoke of his dynamism as a professor. So many went on to fulfill the values he held dear, and he remembered nearly all of them. Although he perhaps had not always let them know how impressed he had been with their work, he made sure his family knew. The continuing impact of those students is the best tribute he probably could have imagined to the spirit of the profession he was so delighted himself to have practiced.

 Thomas P. Kelly, Jr. was 83 years old.


 John Kelly (Berkeley Law ‘02) is a member of the SCBA Board, and chair of its Business and IP Law section. He is President of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees and a partner in Kelly, Carlstrom & Associates in Santa Rosa.