More Than a Lawyer

The congregation filled every seat at University Christian Church on Oct. 6 to celebrate the life of famed attorney, Dee J. Kelly. Kelly passed away unexpectedly on Oct. 2. He was 86.

One of Fort Worth’s most influential citizens, Kelly rose from modest beginnings to grow Kelly Hart & Hallman into the largest law firm in Tarrant County. His clients included Fort Worth’s Bass and Moncrief families, the late John Justin, and AMR Corp., the parent company of American Airlines.

“Dee Kelly was just as good of an American as you would want to know,” says William A. “Tex” Moncrief Jr., president of Moncrief Oil. “He was a very fine man, a hard worker, and an excellent lawyer for us.”

“I had the good fortune of knowing him nearly all my life,” says Pete Geren, president of the Sid Richardson Foundation. “He was one of my dad’s closest friends and over the years, became a mentor to me.” Geren worked for Kelly as an attorney in the newly formed law firm in 1979. “When I think of him as a professional, and as an effective citizen and human being, I think of two things. One is commitment to the cause, and second is preparation, preparation, preparation.”

Born March 7, 1929, in Bonham, Texas, Kelly grew up as an only child. His father sold insurance, and his mother worked in a cotton mill. It was during those years as a child of the Depression that he learned the value of effort and persistence. His tireless work ethic would become legendary. After graduating from TCU in 1950, Kelly attended law school at George Washington University. TCU’s Dee J. Kelly Alumni & Visitors Center would later become his namesake, and George Washington University recently named the Law School of Learning in his honor.

TCU’s Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. says Kelly was the perfect combination of fear and love. “He was the kind of person who could inspire me to do better things, but also put the fear of God into me to make sure I did not fail or, worse yet, fail him.” Boschini recalls Kelly calling him to give rapid-fire advice, moving from subject to subject. “Often he would then call back a few days later and ask, ‘Well, did you do what I told you? Did it work? Told you it would.’”

Dee J. Kelly received his law degree from George Washington University and was admitted to the State Bar of Texas in 1954.  He formed Kelly Hart & Hallman in 1979.

During Kelly’s lifelong personal involvement with politics, he formed political relationships on both sides. As a young man, he worked for Sam Rayburn, the legendary conservative Democrat speaker of the U.S. House. Kelly campaigned with Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson. He was a friend and supporter of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush as well as all the governors of Texas from John Connally to Greg Abbott. It was Rayburn who told Kelly to go back to Fort Worth and make an honest living.

Kelly served on numerous boards, including 32 years on the board of his beloved TCU, where he also was a member of the executive committee. Kelly’s honors include Fort Worth’s Outstanding Citizen Award, the city’s Outstanding Business Executive, the Horatio Alger Award, and the Blackstone Award, given by the Tarrant County Bar Association annually to one outstanding lawyer.

Dee J. Kelly Jr. says his father practiced law with grit, passion, and determination. “There was no obstacle too great. I learned so many things from him, but his fierce will and drive to succeed never leaves me.”


He never really cared about the credit or the glory. He just wanted to make TCU better in so many ways. He was always willing to use his influence, in such a positive way, to advance anything and everything Texas Christian. – Victor J. Boschini, Texas Christian University Chancellor

Dee Kelly was not hesitant to ‘call it like it is’ to anyone. One night when the late Lloyd Bentsen was running for vice president on the Democratic ticket, he stopped in Fort Worth for dinner. After dinner Dee stood up and said, ‘Of the 25 people in this room, only one (Jim Wright) plans to vote for you unless you can convince them otherwise.’ Lloyd was speechless. Dee was an iconic mover and shaker who will be missed. – John V. Roach, emeritus TCU trustee

Dee Kelly was just a great person, a good friend, a good citizen, and a patriot. He was a perfect guy, and he will be missed. He has created a void that’s impossible to fill. – Dr. Bobby Brown, Fort Worth cardiologist, retired

I worked for Dee Kelly as a lawyer, and if you’ve ever worked for him, you’ve never quit working for him. His commitment to doing his very best with everything he did was a value that he modeled every day of his life. In working for him, the thoroughness that he would bring to any project was a great life lesson. That’s what made him such a successful attorney. His clients got 110 percent, 24 hours a day, every day. More than a lawyer, he ended up being partners with his clients in accomplishing so many of the most significant industries that have shaped Fort Worth. – Pete Geren, President, Sid Richardson Foundation

Dee Kelly was just as good of an American citizen as you would want to know. He was a very fine man, a hard worker, and an excellent lawyer. – William “Tex” Moncrief, Moncrief Oil

From Dee, I learned to ever give up striving to achieve a good result for your client, no matter how hard the task or long the odds. And, keep your client well informed along the way. An occasional good surprise may be OK, but a bad surprise can be very damaging to your relationship with the client. – Robert C. Grable, Partner, Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP

He understood the imperative of political, civic, and philanthropic engagement to benefit our community and beyond – and whenever he engaged on any issue, you can be sure it was not halfway. He was a force of nature with far-flung influence, but to me he was a remarkable advisor, mentor, and friend. – Pati Meadows, Partner, Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP

While there are many things I learned from Dee, perhaps the greatest lesson I learned about the practice of law was the devotion and effort required to properly serve a client. Other than faithfulness to the law and the ethics of our profession, there are no boundaries or limits to loyalty, and our clients, like our family and friends, deserve nothing less than our unconditional loyalty, including our unbounded effort and time. – Dan Settle, Jr., Partner, Kelly Hart & Hallman LLP

I learned many things from my father, his work ethic, integrity and his immense loyalty. But, it was his integrity that I learned the most from, and as they say, ‘kids learn more from what is caught than taught’ and seemed I always caught him doing the right thing. – Craig Kelly, son

Faith and family first, work hard; everyone needs a helping hand; to whom much is given, much is required, are a few of the core values my father taught me. – Cindy Barnes, daughter

We all know Sam Rayburn brought Dee to Washington so he could get a law degree through night school.  When Dee had attained his degree, Rayburn sent him home.  The newspapers have reported that Rayburn said, "Go home, Texas needs you."  What Dee told me Rayburn said was, "Get the hell out of this town, go home and make an honest living."

Dee, like Rayburn, had a skeptical opinion of government.  But, they both knew that one had to work in the muck to get good things done.  They both got things done, a lot of things, and good things too. 

When a problem looked hopeless, Dee was a master.  He would pry with leverage.  He would cajole with honey.  He would barter and he would badger. 

When ingenuity didn't work, tenacity did.  Dee was the most tenacious person we'll ever know.  When there was a goal to achieve he was of a singular mind.

My favorite story about Dee is his power of concentration and awareness of nothing else.  We were seated next to each other at a dinner in Dallas to hear John Connally speak.  Dee complimented me on my many interests in life and expressed a determination to have more time to broaden his own interests.  He vowed to take time to smell the roses.  Dee then looked down at the dining table.  “Aren’t we going to get something to eat around here?  When are they going to bring us our first course?”  I replied, “Dee…  You just ate it.”

As competitive as he was he was always modest.  He never acted better than anybody.  He never took any credit himself.  He gave the credit to his associates, his allies, and his clients.  He didn't always give credit without qualifiers.  Last week Dee told me I had a good memory for somebody who was not a lawyer.  But that was just to make his correction a gentle one, as he corrected my confusion of which court had made a particular ruling.

The only area where Dee ever bragged was to say he was a great trial lawyer.  I remember a New York lawyer telling me that one thing all Texas lawyers had in common was they thought they were great litigators.  I told him that he had finally met the real deal.

As competitive as Dee was, he always played by the strictest rules of integrity.  He often told me when I'd get hyperactive, "Sid, you can disagree with the law, but you can't break it." 

I'm not a golfer myself, but I like to think that it was Mr. Sam who advised Dee that there was an exception in the code for a gentleman to improve a bad lie with the nudge of his foot.

Dee defined "loyalty".  He owned the word.  Loyalty is an active, not a passive quality.  Loyalty takes energy, determination, and courage.  Dee's loyalty was not sitting around waiting to be called upon.  Dee engaged the battle in the name of his friends whenever he saw the need.  In loyalty, he had no peer.

Honorable.  Competitive.  Modest.  Tenacious.  Loyal.  Dee got things done.  Mr. Sam was right.  Whether in Washington or in Texas, all of us have needed Dee.
– Eulogy delivered by Sid Bass