Having grown up in a politically-active family, Peter Kelly initially envisioned a career as a congressman. Today, 50 years after his graduation from Yale Law School, he has done almost everything except run for office.
In addition to a successful career as an attorney — he is a founder and senior principal of Updike, Kelly & Spellacy — Kelly has served as an advisor to political heavyweights including Bill Clinton and Al Gore, worked to help emerging democracies establish an electoral process, founded a nonprofit to bring health care to those most in need, served on dozens of corporate and community boards, headed the national Democratic Party's fundraising arm, and conducted business and political activities in the farthest corners of the world. Oh, and he once save the life of national Republican strategist Mary Matalin during a dicey incident in Nicaragua.
Although he has always been an enthusiastic Democrat, Kelly abandoned the idea of running for office because he "didn't want to become a slave to politics," he said. "I wanted to be on the contributor side, not on the taking side, so I've never regretted not running for office."
Although his family's prior success had laid the foundation for a career in his native Hartford, after his law school graduation, Kelly set out to prove himself elsewhere first. After just three years at a New York law firm, he was offered a partnership. "That said to me, 'You're alright,' so I came back home, intending to run for Congress, but I started running campaigns for others instead of myself. I have a 360-degree view of the world, so why would I want to box myself in?"
Much of Kelly's world view has been shaped by his involvement in helping developing nations forge a democratic electoral process. He is a former chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Democracy and currently heads the nonprofit International Foundation for Election Systems, which has provided assistance in 135 countries since its launch in 1987. He has worked in Central and South America, Africa and the Soviet Union, and now focuses on the Middle East.
"What he's done throughout the world, bringing democracy to countries to help them move along in their development, is phenomenal," said Bobbie Bartucca, executive director of the Malta House of Care Foundation. "He's been there as an observer in areas where people are getting shot as they're trying to vote."
The same dogged determination that has enabled Kelly to promote democracy around the world has also helped him make a difference closer to home. Bartucca recalls the early stages of the Malta House of Care, a mobile medical clinic that brings health care to underserved people in Hartford. "In 2006, when Peter and Jean-Pierre van Rooy came up with the idea, people thought they were crazy, and that's the last thing you want to say to Peter, because he will prove that he can accomplish what you perceive to be impossible," she said. "In light of how much he's done literally worldwide, for him to take time to concentrate on Hartford, and in particular people in need who don't have access to health care, is remarkable."
As Kelly has gradually backed away from actively practicing law and political fundraising, "I actually still have a bunch of goals," he said. "Right now, my attention is focused on institutionalizing the Malta House of Care concept across the country. We've started in Waterbury now and we'll be in 40 cities within five years. My second area of interest is pursuing what's taking place in the Mideast right now."
In addition to promoting free and fair elections in that part of the world, Kelly is working with some colleagues on a book aimed at educating Westerners about Islam, and he hopes to establish a support structure for job training.
"What's wrong in the Middle East is that there is no employment for the young," he said. "If you employ your own people properly, they will focus on their own well being and the well being of others and become a constructive part of society. I also encourage every young person who comes to me for advice to learn Arabic and Farsi, because if you're going to be involved in public policy in the next 30 years, it's going to involve Islam in one way or another. It's the dominant religion in the world and we just don't understand it."
A bad leg has forced Kelly to give up pursuits like golf and sailing, but he continues to read and enjoy time with his wife, four children and five grandchildren. His family is encouraging him to write a book, but it won't be a memoir. "I'm certainly not without ego, but I don't have the ego to write a book about myself," he said. Instead, he is putting together a collection of funny stories he has compiled over the years.
Susan Kelly, his wife of 51 years, thinks that is appropriate.
"Peter's life is best defined by three words – love, loyalty and laughter," she said. "He loves his family and friends, he's loyal to everyone and everything he feels a connection with, and laughter rules. If you can apply those three principles to your whole life, you're a very special person." ?
Organization and Title: My business and professional life has involved many organizations, anchored by Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, P.C., a firm that I co-founded in 1967 — 45 years ago.
Other major organizations in which I have been intensely involved are: Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healy (now Prime Policy Group), the first bi-partisan public affairs form in Washington, DC. (13 years); a series of "democracy" focused foundations (in sequence) The American Political Foundation (co-founder and treasurer); National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (co-founder and treasurer); The Center for Democracy (co-founder and chairman) and International Foundation for Electoral Systems (chairman, 33 years to date)
Malta House of Care Foundation (co-founder and chair, 8 years)
National Democratic Party organizations — including The National Democratic Party (treasurer and finance chairman); the Democratic Senatorial Committee; and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (16 years)
The size of the organizations: Ranged from 12 to 850 full time personnel and budgets ranging from $3 million to $200 million dollars.
ON THE JOB:
Guiding business principle: Give your all! Do your best!! Respect the people with whom you deal — friend and foe.
Best way to keep your competitive edge: Communicate with your world, listen, think, respond.
Successfully completed a generational transfer of our law firm to a younger, very capable group of professionals.
Successfully worked to create a magic combination of volunteers (doctors, nurses and others), strong church, hospital and community support, and needy and grateful patients of Malta House of Care. A win-win for all.
Being part of the creation of a system of pro-democracy organizations that make a difference in the world. From a cold start in 1979, today thousands of trained professionals work around the world helping countries in the transition to private enterprise and democracy. Self-determination (democracy) is an essential step to economic and social well being of a country and its people.
Goal yet to be achieved: Pursuing an understanding of Islam by the West and of the Judeo-Christian culture by Islamic people is critical to a more peaceful and calm world.
Favorite part of the jobs: Working with people, especially the humor each of us share in most situations.
Least favorite part of the jobs: Asking individuals for contributions.
Most influential business book: "Comparative Government" by Karl Cerny.
Personal touch in my office — An original page from "Puck" published in 1892 depicting the broom of "democracy" sweeping the world.
Best business decision: Create a law firm focused on a series of highly specialized fields and avoiding the pursuit of commoditized fields.
Worst Business Decision: A political decision—to ask each of the six Democratic presidential candidates (Mondale, Hart, Cranston, Jackson, Hollings and McGovern) to join in a November 1983 fundraising tour in 24 hours (DC to Dallas to Albuquerque; DC to Chicago to Albuquerque) committing their respective financial organizations to a central fund for the nominee. Great idea; failed—the candidates did nothing; the DNC had to raise the money to make it work. I apologized to our crew for being the one who thought of it and tried to do it. Paul Kirk, later DNC Chairman, said "Peter, it is the first time in my political career that anyone acknowledged that they had made an error." I had made the error.
Biggest missed opportunity: Resigning from a board of an entrepreneur who had the idea of putting static data on a circular disc. I didn't have time for the meetings. We now call these things CDs and DVDs. Can't win them all.
Best place to network: Wherever you are.
Next Big Thing(s): For the world, breakthroughs in energy production and water conservation and use. For me, seeking to penetrate the core problems of the No. 1 issue of international relations—the interface of Islam and the West.
Your pet peeve: People who always complain; people with no sense of humor.
City of residence: Middle Haddam.
Favorite way to relax: Together with Susan, my wife of 51 years, enjoy our children and grandchildren; read books; sing.
Last vacation: A week on Cape Hatteras, N.C., with our complete family.
Favorite movie: Citizen Kane.
The car you drive: Mercedes (one of the few cars with room enough for me).
Favorite communication device: iPad.
Currently Reading: Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore; A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara.
Favorite cause: Ensuring the provision of health care for the uninsured through institutions such as Malta House of Care and the like.
Second choice career: Civil engineer.