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EDITORIAL: The tao of Mike Kelly

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Wilmington suffered a loss this month that reverberated through its large legal community, its hospitality industry, its government and more when Michael “Mike” P. Kelly passed following a long battle against gallbladder cancer.

Kelly, the former chairman of McCarter & English, a 177-year-old national law firm, and the owner of the historic Logan House bar and restaurant in Trolley Square, was a product of the city. He was a fourth generation Wilmingtonian, whose great-grandfather bought the famed family inn and pub named after American Civil War Gen. John A. Logan in 1889.

Raised near the Logan House in Forty Acres, Mike and his twin brother, John, were star athletes at the Tower Hill School, earning scholarships to Ivy League school Columbia University to play football and compete in track and field. Several of his high school athletic records reportedly remain to this day.

He returned to his hometown after earning his law degree, he returned to his hometown and spent time at its established firms and building his own practices before joining McCarter in 2000. Less than a decade afterward, he took over the top seat at the firm of hundreds headquartered in the other Newark, the one in New Jersey.

Leading such a large firm, with Fortune 100 companies often found within its clients, it probably would have been understandable if Kelly had pulled up stakes and relocated to the Big Apple. But he didn’t, and longtime friend Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings told me that was evidence of Kelly’s love for his family’s hometown – he would never leave.

“He loved this city. We would often talk about how committed we both were to the city that got us to where we are,” she said.

McCarter grew quickly under his watch, with net income reportedly doubling over his tenure, and he won major cases of his own, including AstraZeneca’s Seroquel litigation. Despite that success, many who knew Kelly well said the success never went to his head.

“Mike just had that ability that very few people have in not only having the intellectual rigor of being a fantastic lawyer but combining that with this amazing ability to connect to people whether they were judges, lawyers, jurors, or even the custodians or bailiffs who worked in the courtroom,” said David White, the former managing partner of McCarter’s Wilmington office who knew Kelly for decades.

When Kelly was diagnosed a few years ago with advanced gallbladder cancer, he dialed back his commitments and stepped down from the chairman seat at McCarter after a decade. He made time for family and friends, often saying those relationships meant more to him than the professional accomplishments.

Unfortunately, Kelly didn’t win his battle with the very rare cancer, but he didn’t let the fight bring down his spirits or distract him from what was important.

Jacob Owens
Delaware Business Times

Hearing from his friends this week brought up memories of my own treatment of thyroid cancer last year – the head-spinning diagnosis call, the worrying about what might or could happen, the putting on a brave face as you hope the treatment proved successful, and the lingering thoughts of what your loved ones might have to do without you. He endured all of that for several years, while also continuing to litigate at a high level and being a husband, father, brother and friend. It truly is remarkable.

I was lucky and my wife’s insistence likely saved my life, or at least a lot of heartache. Surgery and radiation treatment has left me cancer free, but I recognize there are many like Kelly who don’t get to have that journey.

He leaves behind a reminder that life isn’t guaranteed, that “fortune favors the bold” and that we should remember what’s most important in this life: spreading as much love and support to others as possible while we’re here.

Three years ago, Kelly told Delaware Business Times that he “would much rather be remembered as being a great father, husband and friend than being a great trial lawyer.”

After hearing from his community this week, I have no doubt that’s just how he’s being remembered and it’s a good lesson to those he leaves behind.

Slàinte, Mike.

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