Jack Kelly (right) pictured with Alltech Founder and CEO Pearse Lyons in a photo from 2006. Picture courtesy of Alltech.
Lexington, KY – Jack Kelly came into Lexington as the first CEO of the Alltech World Equestrian Games Kentucky 2010 with a resume as impressive as his personality.
Born and raised in suburban Boston, his northeastern style – and to an extent, the Boston accent – stuck with Kelly despite his time spent living in Texas and working on international sports operations. But it was his personality, knowledge and abilities that stuck with the people he met.
“He had a very non-threatening, engaging personality that people instantly liked. Not only that, he always knew what he was talking about,” said initial WEG Chairman Jim Host of Kelly, 68, who died Wednesday after a prolonged illness.
“If you wanted to talk anything about the Olympics, anything about baseball, anything about history of sports, anything about events, he knew what he was talking about because he had been there and done that. And yet, he wasn’t an arrogant person.”
Host, like Kelly, made his name and career in sports, though their paths didn’t cross until the last decade.
“I knew of him and he knew of me,” Host said, but save a brief introduction at a National Association of Sports Commissions Sports Event Symposium held in April 2006 in Lexington, the two never talked until Host thought of him to run the World Equestrian Games.
“He was, in my judgment, the perfect person at the time with all of the Olympic experience he had, the fact that he was able to reach out and hire a good staff, he was able to put together the original game plan, he was able to put together the original analysis and budgets. He was able to put the plan in place, which in turn caused the Games to be very successful,” said Host who oversaw the early stages of the Games from landing them as Commerce Secretary during the Fletcher Administration to running its board.
A little more than two years before the Games were to kick off at the Kentucky Horse Park, Kelly asked to meet with Host, who’d left the Games board to oversee the Louisville Arena Authority.
“He told me he was going to leave (his job with the WEG)… I thought he was telling me he was going back to Texas. What he told me was ‘Kathy and I love it so much here, we’re going to spend the rest of our lives here.’ He said ‘I really want to make a contribution to the community and the area and I want you to know I am available and able to do it,” Host recalled of their conversation.
In 1990 Kelly took the reins of the Goodwill Games, a sporting event started by Ted Turner and Turner Sports in the wake of the Olympic turmoil in the 1980s as Russia and the United States boycotted games for political reasons. Those games were held in Seattle in 1990, St. Petersburg, Russia in 1994 and New York City in 1998 before the final edition in Brisbane, Australia in 2001. There was also a single Winter Goodwill Games held in Lake Placid in 2000. Kelly served as president of the Goodwill Games until 1995.
Kelly stepped down from the World Equestrian Games in 2008, telling Business Lexington at the time his doctor had told him to “dial it down” after not taking a vacation in more than two years. At the time, he also said “I uncovered a few medical issues… They’re not life threatening but they’re lifestyle impacting, and kind of life-shortening if I didn’t address them.”
He may have dialed it down, but he stayed involved. Kelly had a leadership role with USA Baseball and was part of the 2010 Little League Baseball International Congress in 2010 here in Lexington where he helped arrange former President George W. Bush to speak.
“Jack Kelly left a great impact on USA Baseball during over a decade of service on the USA Baseball Board of Directors,” USA Baseball President, Mike Gaski said in a statement released on USA Baseball’s website. “As chairman of the USA Baseball relocation committee, he was an integral part of USA Baseball's move to the Triangle-area of North Carolina, a place that has become a wonderful home for the federation.
“Jack was truly a well-rounded sportsman and was responsible for the growth of many sporting events both internationally and domestically,” the statement said.
Locally, Kelly was involved in the Bluegrass Sports Commission and served as a contributing writer to Business Lexington penning occasional columns of the business of sports.
A celebration of life will be held for Kelly at 4pm, Sunday, July 28th at Clark Legacy Center, Brannon Crossing, followed by a gathering of family and friends.
He is survived by his wife, Mary Kathleen Evans Kelly, a daughter, a son, three brothers and four grandchildren.
“Perhaps the greatest testament to him is that he came to a city where he effectively didn’t know anyone, and he left a city full of people who did not just know him, they respected him; they loved him,” Alltech CEO Pearse Lyons said of Kelly.