Vol. 28, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
Charles J. (Slide) Kelly
by Ralph W. Bell
Ralph W. Ball, admitted to the state bars of Wyoming and Colorado in 1948, closed his Cherry Creek office on December 31, 1998. His principal residence is now Carbondale, Colorado, with a condominium in Aurora.
When Charles James Kelly (nicknamed "Slide" after a legendary professional baseball player) was about 26 years old, he became ill with pneumonia and tuberculosis, and the doctors told him, "You’re not going to live very long." Happily for all of us who knew and loved him, he lived to be 92. He died in Denver on September 28, 1984.
A Self-Made Man
Slide was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, August 22, 1892, one of nine children—four boys and five girls. His early schooling was at St. Bonaventure’s College there, which he said was equivalent to graduating from high school. Realizing there was little future in Newfoundland, he headed for the United States at about the age of 18, going first to St. Louis to stay with his father’s cousin, principal of Christian Brother’s College. After a short time, he moved to New York, where he worked as an instructor for the Department of Corrections. He became a U.S. citizen February 17, 1917.
In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Slide volunteered for the army, which rejected him for a heart condition (he later said he never really believed he had one). When the draft came, he was called up—no heart problem was found. After seven months, in 1918, he was discharged due to tuberculosis, and he went to Arizona, where he was a timekeeper at the copper operations of Phelps-Dodge, a mining company. Six months later he had another flare-up of TB and spent the next two years in an army hospital in New Mexico. He was not a bed patient there—he worked in the fresh air and sun every day, chopping wood and other chores and frequently riding horseback.
Eligible for the World War I equivalent of the GI Bill, Slide decided to finish college and become a lawyer. He spent two years at the University of Colorado ("CU") and then three more at CU Law School, one of the few law schools in the West. He graduated in 1925 with the highest grade in his year’s bar examination group, and was admitted to practice February 18, 1925.
During his student years, on December 21, 1922, he married Marjorie Fleming, daughter of the long-time dean of the CU Law School, John D. Fleming. The couple had two children, John Fleming Kelly (Jack) and Mary Ellen Kelly Owen, who between them gave him eight grandchildren. Jack is a graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, and was a partner in Holland & Hart for many years before moving to New York, where he became Vice President, Panels Management Group, for the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution. Jack has four children, one boy and three girls, all living in Denver. Daughter Johanna is an Assistant Dean at Denver University College of Law, and another daughter, Alinka, is a lawyer.
Mary Ellen, always an outstanding student (Smith graduate) and teacher (Kent School), following her mother’s example, also has four offspring, two girls and two boys. The daughters live in Denver, where Elizabeth Walker is curator of the Molly Brown House and Amy is on the faculty of St. Ann’s School. One son, Thomas P. Owen, who has a Ph.D. in botany, is on the faculty of Connecticut College, and the other son, Charles Kelly Owen, is a crew coach at Oregon State.
A Long Legal Career
Slide’s law career started out briefly in Boulder, but he shortly moved to Denver (where he lived the rest of his life) and associated with various lawyers and firms. A lifelong Republican, he ran unsuccessfully for Justice of the Supreme Court (then a statewide elective position) in 1934, which was the (Roosevelt) year of a Democratic landslide. In 1938 he opened his own practice, sharing offices with bar leaders John Coen and Erskine Myer; he then moved to the Equitable Building and practiced with Fred Neef.
In 1941, Slide’s great Republican and University Club friend, Ed Knowles of Hughes and Dorsey, became seriously ill, and Slide, prominent in railroad law, was asked to join that firm and represent
Union Pacific. He stayed until about 1945, when he joined Lee, Shaw and McCreery, legal counsel for the Public Service Company of Colorado. He remained there and with its successor firm, Kelly, Stansfield & O’Donnell, for the rest of his legal career. Beginning in 1953, he was a member of the Public Service Company Board of Directors for many years.
He was a longtime executive secretary of the Colorado Railroad Association (no longer in existence) and worked closely with the Colorado state legislature on railroad matters. Among his most salient achievements were amendments to the Colorado State Constitution regarding public utilities legislation. His thorough preparation of all of his cases (whether before a court, a legislative committee, or a negotiating session), his engaging manner, and his willingness to listen to the positions of others were all factors in his success. Much of the business legislation enacted by the Colorado General Assembly from 1938 through the 1960s had his input.
After he reached the age of 65 in the late 1950s, Slide began to cut back on his legal workload. For the next twenty years or so he still routinely came to the office. His door was always open. He stayed current on the firm’s business. Important legal matters being handled by the firm were invariably discussed with Slide by the firm’s partners. He also welcomed young associates seeking guidance on the legal matters they were handling. Slide was the last word in the firm on matters of professional ethics and conflicts.
For over twenty years he "held court" on work days from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Then, he was off to the University Club for lunch and bridge. About 2:00 p.m., he would check in for messages, return phone calls, and then drive home in time to beat the rush-hour traffic. His days at the office ended when he could no longer drive; yet, out of respect, his corner office remained unassigned to any other lawyer until after his death. Slide continued his interest in the firm after being confined to his home. He did not want "of counsel" status and retained a partnership interest until his death.
Kelly was president of the Colorado Bar Association in 1954-1955 and received the Judge William Lee Knous Memorial Award from the CU Law School alumni in 1967, confirming the esteem in which he was held by his fellow lawyers.
Kelly never lost his love for the law. He wrote his son when Jack was graduating from law school that the practice of law always continued to be enjoyable because every day brought a new problem needing solution for clients. Legal research was certainly not a drudgery for him; he continued to do some of his own research as long as he practiced. Problems of constitutional law always intrigued him, partly because of his pride that he, born a subject of England’s monarchy, had become a citizen of a great democracy whose governance was based on a document he genuinely cherished.
His wife, Marge, who called him "Beau," died in 1981 at the age of 86. They had a long, productive, contented 59-year marriage. She was a goal-oriented, intellectual lady—"a fabulous teacher"—for many years at Denver’s Randell School (now Randell-Moore), inspiring and influencing the lives of students needing special help and attention.
I first met the Kellys in 1946 when I lived at the University Club while attending the University of Denver College of Law on the GI Bill—Slide and Marge had dinner there about once a week, and used to invite us residents to sit with them for after-dinner coffee. Along with Ed Knowles, he was one of my three character-reference sponsors when I took the 1948 bar examination. I was one of many young lawyers to whom he was a mentor, and we were occasional golfing companions.
Kelly loved golf, started late in life, and was an enthusiastic duffer. Many weekday afternoons when the weather permitted he would leave his office, telling the receptionist that he would be out during the afternoon "inspecting real estate." The
real estate he inspected was always the same, the eighteen holes of the golf course. He frequently dubbed his tee shots, and when one trickled only twenty-five yards, he would say, "See, boys, that there’s Kelly country!"
Toward the end, after Marge’s death, he lived in a house on Gaylord Street, with live-in help, and many of us used to drop in to see him. He relished this, and looked forward to sharing a Scotch while he regaled us with great stories. He was always cheerful and welcomed and thanked us for coming to see him. His cherubic smile lit up a room—he was a straight shooter, a straight arrow—in his time, all lawyers were friendly with all other lawyers.
He loved to sing an Irish ballad called Bridget McHugh, often with tears in his eyes:
Top o’ the mornin’, Bridget McHugh.
Fresh as a shamrock, all covered with dew.
To receive one of your smiles—
And to gaze into your eyes of Irish blue —that’s true
Oh, Bridget me darlin’, now what shall I do?
My heart is a’ thumpin’ a’ thinkin’ of you.
When I gaze upon your charms
I could hold you in me arms.
Top o’ the mornin’, Bridget McHugh.
At a Public Service Company tribute, he called himself "One Lucky Irishman." But he was a self-made man, an unquestionable success professionally and in his personal life. He "did it" through brains, energy, integrity, loyalty, humor, enthusiasm, and faith. Slide was loved and respected by all who were fortunate enough to know him.
The author gratefully acknowledges the essential contributions of Fred Witsell and Jack Kelly to this article.
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