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John B. Kelly Jr Enters Sports Hall of Fame

Tonight, Nov. 2, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame will add John B. Kelly Jr. into its pantheon as one of the city’s great athletes. Jack, or “Kell” as he was also called, is a major reason that Boathouse Row remains the athletic powerhouse that it is today. An Olympian himself, he used his international connections to bring some of the best rowers to Philadelphia, and thus assembled the 1964 Vesper crew that won gold in Tokyo. He  recruited women rowers to the Vesper Boat Club in the late 1960s, a time when the men’s clubs wanted nothing to do with them. Or, as one official of the all-male national rowing organization put it at the time, “We are the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, not Oarswomen!”
Here’s the essay I wrote about Kell for the hall of fame , which will be read at tonight’s ceremony:

John B. Kelly Jr.

By Dotty Brown

Author of Boathouse Row, Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing


When the British barred John B. Kelly Sr., the great rowing Olympian of the 1920s, from competing at Henley, he vowed that if he ever had a son, that child would avenge him.

  John B Kelly Sr takes Kell out at age 8

So it came to pass. And more so. John B. Kelly Jr. would win one of the world’s most prestigious sculling events, the Diamond Challenge Sculls at Henley – twice, no less – along with a slew of other medals during his rowing career. His bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics today remains a record – the last time an American has medaled in the men’s singles sculling event.

Perhaps more importantly, Kelly’s competitive spirit, his leadership skills and his dedication to Philadelphia’s rowing community, catapulted the athletes of Boathouse Row into the top echelon of international competition, even as Kelly rose to become president of the US Olympic Committee.

“Jack” or “Kell,” as he was called, was eight years old in 1935 when his father first took him out in a double scull. By high school at William Penn Charter, Kelly was winning everything on the Schuylkill River. Photos show his soon-to-be-famous sister, Grace Kelly, congratulating him after his singles victory in the Stotesbury Regatta of 1944

Two years later, the 19-year-old would win the US single sculls competition, a feat he would repeat seven more times. That year, he lost in his first attempt at vindicating his father at Henley. His father’s rejection in 1920 had never been explained by the British, though one theory blamed English amateur rules, which barred laborers from competition because of the advantage they would have over collegiate rowers.

But in 1947, Kelly Jr. swept to victory at Henley by eight lengths and was honored as America’s top amateur athlete with a James E. Sullivan prize. Only Kelly Jr. and another Philadelphian, Joe Burk, a champion rower of the 1930s, have ever won a Sullivan for the sport of rowing.

Kelly repeated his Henley win in 1949 and raced in four consecutive Olympics, starting in 1948. His 1956 bronze remains the last time an American man has medaled in the single at any Olympic game. He also won two gold medals at the Pan American Games, and six Canadian single sculls championships. In 1956, he was elected to the US Rowing Hall of Fame. ”Young Jack was the last great Philadelphia sculler,” wrote Peter Mallory in his monumental history, The Sport of Rowing.

But it was Kelly’s vision for Boathouse Row, his magnetism, and his dedication of both time and money that drew some of the world’s greatest rowers and coaches to Philadelphia. His view of sport was global, beyond politics.

Russian Olympian Vyacheslav Ivanov and Kelly in Philadelphia, 1962,

In 1956, when he won bronze in Melbourne, Australia, the gold went to Vyacheslav Ivanov of the Soviet Union. Despite the Cold War, Kelly invited Ivanov and his Soviet crew to Philadelphia to race against the clubs of Boathouse Row.

Kelly also dreamed that, against all odds, an eight-oared crew from his club, Vesper, could get to the Olympics. A Vesper eight had won gold medals in 1900 and 1904 but for the next 60 years only collegiate crews had represented the United States. When the entire Hungarian crew defected during the 1956 Olympics, Kelly brought its vaunted coxswain, Robert Zimonye, to Philadelphia and got him a job in the family business, John B. Kelly, Inc. (Kelly for Brickworks). When the Germans failed to include Dietrich Rose in its lineup for the 1960 Olympics, Kelly told him, “We’d love to have you and will get you a job.”

In 1963, Kelly convinced the U.S. Navy to let Lieutenant Bill Stowe, the former stroke at Cornell, to train in Philadelphia for the 1964 Olympics. He also wrote letters to the Air Force and Army supporting the transfers of Joe and Tom Amlong to Philadelphia. “We have to go to Philly to row because that’s where it’s at,” Joe had told his brother.

Drawn by the powerhouse Kelly was building were two Yalies, Boyce Budd and Emory Clark. The Vesper crew was filled out by Kelly’s former doubles partner, Bill Knecht, 34, and a pair of LaSalle College rowers.

A “motley crew” — the Vesper Eight, 1964

And so Kelly assembled what the press called a “motley crew” of “old men” who would surprise the world by claiming gold at the Tokyo Olympics.

Kelly was also in the vanguard when it came to women’s rowing. Women could vote before they could row and by the late 1960s, they were still struggling for the right to row in the Olympics. Kelly instructed a Vesper coach, Gus Constant, to begin training women for international competition.

Vesper, said Kelly’s son, John B. Kelly III, “was the first club to go coed after the girls club. [Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club]. He was very proud of that. He never told me why he wanted to do it, Maybe because he had three sisters and five daughters. …He thought it was the right thing to do.”

The first U.S women’s eight, including some Kelly protégées, won silver in the 1976 Olympics.

Kelly was also at the founding of dragon boating in the United States when in 1983, the Hong Kong tourist bureau approached US Rowing in Philadelphia to send over a team. By then in his 50s, “Kelly showed up at every practice,” said John Breen, the youngest member of that first dragon boat team. “He was not there in name only.”

Even as he went on to become a Philadelphia City Councilman and serve on non-profit boards such as the Hero Scholarship Fund, Kelly continued to boost rowing locally and nationally. In 1985, he achieved another dream when he was named president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. But three weeks later, he suffered a fatal heart attack while jogging along Boathouse Row. Today, his achievements are memorialized in the roadway “Kelly Drive.” And each year, the U.S Olympic Committee awards the Jack Kelly Fair Play award to an athlete, coach or team for an act of fair play and sportsmanship, a fitting tribute to John B. Kelly Jr. who now enters the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.