SI Vault
John Underwood
May 10, 1971
As president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jack Kelly is determined to leap tall traditions in a single bound
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May 10, 1971

No Bird, No Plane, Just Superjack

As president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Jack Kelly is determined to leap tall traditions in a single bound

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His father suggested he learn to box. "Good training," he said. At 180 pounds Jack Jr. won the heavyweight championship of the Bainbridge (Md.) Naval Station and the intramural championship at the University of Pennsylvania.

His father, who had been in the ambulance corps in World War I, stressed patriotism. Jack Jr. punished himself to get into the Navy, walking on rollers to elevate his flat feet, eating carrots for his failing eyes. "I would have done anything not to be classified 4-F," he says. He would have been anyway if strings hadn't been pulled. "I became the blindest ensign in the Navy," says Jack Jr.

His father wanted him to know the family business from the bottom. Jack Jr. worked on construction jobs in tenements and he won a brick-laying contest and the silver trowel that went with it. (The runner-up protested, with a dark hint of nepotism.) His father impressed on him the value of social and civic involvement; Jack Jr. began to spread himself around. "I could no more divest myself of my Philadelphianess," he says, "than I could zip out of my skin."

Until 1960, when Jack Sr. died, his influence on the son was total. Because Jack Jr. didn't seem to chafe under it didn't make it less real. Sometimes the effect was subtle. There is, today, an almost neurotic neatness to Jack Jr.—his dress (conservative, leaning to browns); the close, careful cropping of his hair; the well-ordered budgeting of his time; the precise piles he makes of things (papers on his desk, magazines in his apartment). A man having breakfast at the Kelly penthouse can't lay a spoon aside without having Jack grab it up for the dishwasher.

Sister Peggy sees their father in this. She recalls a time in Ocean City, N.J., where the family had a summer house. Father patrolled the beach in a pith helmet. He was legendary for the tidiness of his stretch of sand. When boyfriends came around to see the Kelly sisters, the old man passed out rakes. "We had the best-groomed beach in town," says Peggy.

"My father was a tough act to follow," Jack Kelly says. "Big, strong guy, fine looking, eminently successful. There was always pressure to excel, to keep up. I have been competing with him all my life. Living in his shadow made losing harder when I lost, which admittedly wasn't very often, because I was humiliated for both of us.

"But look at it another way. I had a readymade business to step into. Doors were opened. I had an opportunity, and an influence, that helped me excel in athletics, and my athletics opened doors, too. That's contrary to the definition of true amateurism, of course, so I'm guilty of not being a true amateur.

"Sometimes now I wish for a quieter life. There are many obligations being the only son of a man like that and it is left to me to fill them. But the wish doesn't last long. I really enjoy the go, go. I can't sit and watch television for hours. I can't wait for a head cold to get better—I think I've had one half-day of sickness, where I had to stay in bed, since 1954. I just go around spreading germs."

Now that Jack Jr. has begun to demonstrate that he is not his father, those around him are somewhat disappointed. To explain this is to explain his unique position as a Kelly.

A number of remarkable traits emerge after prolonged exposure to the Kellys. They are, to begin with, attractive. With the possible, and predictable, exception of Grace, they have no gift for pretension. They strive to be thought of as down to earth. "I have been very careful not to do things to create criticism," says Jack Jr. "I can't have people say I'm a conceited s.o.b."

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