The Way We Were: Jimmy Kelly

The Way We Were: Jimmy Kelly
Jimmy Kelly’s maternal grandfather (J. D. Beard) and daughter (Laura Kelly)

We reap what we sow, the saying goes. There’s a Jacksonville man who’s living proof. Jimmy Kelly, a native Floridian raised in Ortega, is a civic-minded man. He has helped hundreds of kids in our community, and animals, too. The joy he gives always comes back.

Kelly was born in late November of 1951 at St. Vincent’s Hospital, the same hospital where subsequently his brother Mike, sister Jan, and daughter Laura were born. He attended Ruth N. Upson Elementary, a neighborhood school in Murray Hill, the single-story dark red brick building that then served kindergarteners through sixth graders. There’s a park across the street from Upson, one that Kelly today notices needs attention. He hopes to gather his class of 1963 to commit to annual donations to upkeep the park’s landscape. It’s a dream Kelly plans to pursue, and he is confident that his class can do it.

Jimmy Kelly 11th grade member of the Lee golf team

Back in the sixth grade, one lessons was to study Florida. He and his classmates, along with help from their fathers, built on the school’s property a 5-foot high, 40-by-70-foot replica of the state made with dirt and rocks, including all the rivers. The class was featured on the local news for having done such an extraordinary job. “It was a pretty cool project,” Kelly said.

After graduating from Upson, Kelly completed seventh through ninth grades at John Gorrie Junior High School, his dad Mikey Kelly’s alma mater, which was named for Gorrie, who invented the ice-making machine and is considered the father of air conditioning and refrigeration. Years later, that building at the corner of College and Stockton Streets in Riverside was turned into a schoolbook depository for a time before becoming vacant. Delores Barr Weaver and her daughter, Leigh, bought the building and turned it into condominiums. “I wish I’d have bought one of those condos,” Kelly said. “I could have lived in what was Miss Helen Jackson’s seventh-grade English classroom,” he reminisced.

Jimmy Kelly with Governor DeSantis
Jimmy Kelly, Marco Rubio
Jimmy Kelly with Senator Marco Rubio

A graduate of Robert E. Lee High School, Kelly’s class of 1969 had 700 students. “That was always sort of a dream. If your dad went to Lee or your mother went to Lee, or both of them, that’s where you wanted to go if you lived on this side of town,” Kelly said. His father graduated from Lee in 1949. He was a big, strong guy who went on to be the first athletic director of Lake Forest Junior-Senior High School when it opened in September 1957. That was before the name was officially changed to Ribault Senior High School in November of the same year. He was there until 1966 when he transferred jobs to Lee as vice principal and dean of men, just in time for his son to begin school there. “For my three years at Lee, my dad was my dean of men,” Kelly reported.

The worst disciplinary problem Kelly recalled from high school, and it wasn’t him, is the day a guy rode a motorcycle through the halls on the first floor. That was unusual and extreme though. “Back in those days, if you screwed up, like if you were talking in the auditorium or in class for example, and you were sent down to my dad, he might pop you with that paddle three times and send you back to class,” Kelly remembered. “He was well thought of though. That was just part of the deal back then,” Kelly said. 

Kelly was of very small stature, at first, but grew to be nearly as big as his dad. He played basketball at Lee, a little baseball, but mainly golf. “I got the golf bug when I was about 12 years old, and I kept it from that point forward,” Kelly said. In fact, he used to play with Mark McCumber, a Lee classmate and friend who went on to play professionally on the PGA and Champions Tours. “He was one of the biggest things to ever come out of Lee High School. He’s always been one of my heroes,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s mom, Janice Beard, graduated with the class of 1950 from Andrew Jackson High School. Hence, it became an annual tradition for his family to attend the Thanksgiving Day football game when Lee played against Jackson, and they were never late for the 2 p.m. kickoff. Kelly recalled the game was a more formal occasion with gentlemen spectators wearing suits and ties, and women donning beautiful dresses. Regarding today’s controversy over the school board’s desire to change the name of both schools, Kelly said, “To change the name of either school would be a sin.”

After high school, in 1970 while Kelly was attending the University of Florida, his parents moved to Ocala, where his father had taken a position as principal of the new Forest High School. “He was a jock who went to administration,” Kelly said of his dad. His father had played football through Lee High School and in college at Florida. He also had an offer to play professionally with the New York Giants, which he turned down so he could teach and coach at Jackson High School for the same pay, $5,000 per year. Why? The latter career offered health insurance benefits. It also provided the opportunity to help kids.

Kelly was a history major. His plan was to teach for a few years, save some money, and then go to law school. But fate had a different plan. 

When Kelly rang in the new year in 1973 with Cindy Robinson at the home of a mutual friend, Jim Mayes, his life then took a different path. New Year’s Eve was the couple’s first date. Within months, on October 20, they wed. They had met the year after Robinson graduated from Nathan B. Forrest High School, which is today known as Westside High School, and Kelly had just graduated the year before from UF. They both worked at Ivey’s Department Store, the precursor to Dillard’s, he as an assistant manager, and she in ladies’ sportswear. 

Forty-one years ago, when Cindy became pregnant with their only child, Laura, who is still a Jacksonville resident, Kelly quit smoking. He went to a class hosted by the Seventh Day Adventists called the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking. “I choose not to smoke. It’s my decision,” was his mantra, and it remains so. 

Although he is retired now, Kelly’s employment history is colorful. For over a decade, he had worked in sales for Blue Cross Blue Shield, a company his grandmother also had worked for years earlier and Cindy, too, for a time after high school. He moved on to selling business furniture at Perdue Office Interiors, also in Jacksonville. Plans of buying out the company didn’t turn out after several years, and an entrepreneurial spirit was prompting Kelly, so he became a stockbroker. In 1987, self-taught, he passed the Series 7 exam on a Saturday just before the market crashed on Monday. “It was a hard way to earn a living,” Kelly admitted. On to a decade of lawn service and his own company, KellyGreen, with 75 customers. Kelly got into the business after neighbors who admired his lawn convinced him it was a good idea. “Alright, I think I will,” he said. And he soon went out and bought a $400 Oldsmobile station wagon, threw a few lawn tools in the back, and off he went. Also, for a time, Kelly held the title of National Sales Director of Sabertooth golf products.

Kelly then took his sales and marketing experience and applied it to fundraising for nonprofit organizations. That’s when he really found his niche. And more than that, he seems to have found his calling to be an advocate for children, an endeavor that has brought mutual satisfaction.

For six years, from 2005-2010, Kelly worked for Daniel Kids, a 135-year-old children’s service agency. On the third day of his employment there, enough time to witness the atrocities that many children live through, Kelly called his mother to tell her, “I just want to thank you and my dad for doing such a good job raising me because I’m seeing things now that I didn’t believe happened.” He was seeing children who were in severe physical, emotional, and mental distress, those with no safety net at home, some and with no home at all.

As Executive Director of Daniel Kids foundation, he brought the organization from $800,000 per year to over a million, despite the 2008-2009 economic recession. But Kelly wasn’t only employed by Daniel; he also served as a volunteer mentor, working directly with abused, abandoned, neglected, and foster teens, developing close emotional bonds with them. He’d take them on trips to the zoo, ballgames, and to Dick’s Sporting Goods, sometimes just talking with them, letting them know that someone cared. 

The first mentee Kelly was assigned to was Robert, a boy whose foster mother chose to adopt him. On the day the arrangement was to become legal in Judge David Gooding’s court, the young man turned to Kelly and requested, “Mr. Jimmy, I want you up here with me.” The judge’s mother had been very good friends with Kelly’s grandmother, so the two men knew each other from a very young age. The judge was astounded at the bond Kelly had been able to forge with Robert. That year, Kelly took the teen shopping for a new skateboard and related equipment, “It was one of the greatest Christmases I ever had,” Kelly shared. The two kept in touch for many years afterwards. Kelly said of Daniel, “Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, that was the best one.”

After Daniel, for three years in 2010-2013, Kelly was employed as Chief Development Officer of Dreams Come True, a local organization that does for kids being treated at Wolfson Children’s Hospital what Make-a-Wish does for children nationally, fulfilling the dreams of those battling life-threatening illnesses. Again, Kelly had combined his compassion with his salesmanship and dedicated himself to another endeavor where the rewards were reciprocal. 

Kelly said that many opportunities came to him through his love for the game of golf. Some were of a monetary nature, but not all. Some were referrals and introductions. “I would tell any kid right now, learn how to play golf because, in my opinion, it can do more for any young person willing to climb the business ladder than any other sport I know.” Kelly spoke of playing with “really nice people on beautiful courses. It’s a good, clean, gentlemen’s game,” he said.

Though retired now, Kelly remains an active Rotarian, 25 years and counting. He plans events, like his 50th high school reunion, for example. At his church, Ortega United Methodist, Kelly has served on several committees; his wife taught Sunday school classes there for several years when their daughter was young. 

Laura, Jimmy, and Cindy Kelly at Presidents Night

It’s not only people Kelly helps; he rescues dogs as well. “They need homes, too,” Kelly said. Sam is his second. They’ve been together since May 2017, four months after his first, Lucy, passed away. Kelly spoke of the joy and comfort brought to him by these pets. 

Kelly attributes his altruism to his dad, who for many years had been president of the Ocala Civitan Club and member of Eustis Elks Lodge as well as Jacksonville Kiwanis Club.

Kelly also credits two particular mentors he had as an adult, Bob Shircliff and William W. Gay, both of whom were pillars of the community. “They never said ‘no.’ They were both always doing something for others,” Kelly said.

Shircliff, owner of the Pepsi-Cola bottling plant in Jacksonville for many years was known for the bowties he wore. A portion of Barrs Street in Riverside near Ascension St. Vincent’s Medical Center is named in his honor. 

Gay who started up Jacksonville’s W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor, Inc. Both men were quiet contributors to several local charitable organizations, Kelly reported, and he turned to them for advice on many fronts. “I feel very fortunate that I was able to call them my friends and my mentors,” Kelly said.

For the past 35 years, Kelly and his wife have lived in the same house in Ortega. He said he feels fortunate that one of his neighbors, four doors down on the left, is a Lee schoolmate. Another former schoolmate lives two houses away in the opposite direction. “We have lunch on a regular basis. We talk all the time. We’ve stayed in touch since high school,” Kelly said. 

Jimmy Kelly and Jenna

He loves having friends close by, but still, Kelly wants to sell his house because recent orthopedic surgeries, one hand and two knees, demand a ranch-style home. His injuries have kept Kelly off the golf course for the past eight years. It had been his habit to be swinging a club several times per week and to be playing in tournaments regularly. “My goal now is to be able to play a round of golf, at any level, just play a round of golf. I never lost my passion for it,” Kelly said. He still keeps up with the sport on TV and through reading golf magazines. 

Kelly also keeps active by helping children. He’s a volunteer tutor, and he has been helping to raise 7-year-old Jenna, the daughter of Laura’s best friend, since the day she was born. Kelly said he considers the girl his own grandchild, and she calls Kelly and his wife Papa and Nanny. “It’s very nice. She’s a sweetheart. I love her dearly. I’m glad she’s in my life,” Kelly said. His biological twin granddaughters, Britton and Rylan, are no longer living. 

“Kids are fun! Once they get up to a certain age, particularly their smart-ass years where they know more than you do and they’ll tell you all about it, that’s when they get sassy. Then, they’re even more fun, I think!” Kelly said.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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