Wilmington attorney Michael P. “Mike” Kelly, who was the fourth generation of his family to own the historic Kelly’s Logan House bar and restaurant in the city’s Forty Acres neighborhood, died Monday after a long battle with gallbladder cancer.
He was 65.
Kelly, well-known for his sharp legal mind and quick Irish wit, was a partner and chairman emeritus of McCarter & English law firm on King Street. He also was active in charitable and civic organizations, serving on the boards of several organizations and took on many pro bono services.
Despite his busy schedule, Kelly’s daughter, Joanna, said he always made time for his family.
“He always knew what was important and I think he was really good at prioritizing,” she said. “I don’t think he missed one of my brother’s or my athletic games or matches.”
“He never sacrificed those things,” she said.
Perhaps the energy he had to do all that he did came from a family motto, “Kellys don’t quit.” It could also be that Kelly found energy in fighting for what was right, no matter the cost.
“He always used to say that ‘the true mark of a good person is to help those who can’t help you back,'” Joanna Kelly said. “He absolutely did that. He lived that every day of his life.”
While Kelly often spoke or joked of his Irish heritage, his mother and grandmother were Lebanese, helping broaden his view and acceptance of different cultures, his daughter said.
“It was just this beautiful mixture of experiences that made him such a great empathetic and loving person that everyone could connect with,” she said. “I think that added so much to my father’s upbringing, my father’s life, as well as his siblings’ lives.”
Kelly litigated high-profile cases in state and federal courts nationwide.
“The McCarter family mourns the loss of Michael P. Kelly, an amazing lawyer, compassionate human being, and extraordinary friend and leader,” reads a statement from McCarter & English Chairman Joseph Lubertazzi and Joseph Boccassini, the firmwide managing partner.
“As a passionate advocate, Mike won the trust and respect of clients, judges, and fellow lawyers throughout the country, who admired his incredible intellect, energy, and commitment.
“As a leader and Chair of the Executive Committee, he transformed McCarter into a national firm that reflected his own strength and compassion, and greatly expanded both its service capabilities and pro bono commitment. He was a true and loyal friend and has left an indelible mark on all those he touched.
“His integrity, brilliance and unwavering devotion to the countless people, communities and charitable causes he served will live on among the colleagues and friends he guided, mentored and lifted up. We will miss him greatly.”
Even though he was seriously ill, Kelly most recently was lead counsel for former Wilmington Trust President Robert V.A. Harra Jr., during the Wilmington Trust bank fraud trial.
In 2017, Kelly requested to delay the start of the trial while he finished necessary medical treatments, but the request was denied by a federal judge. Kelly remained as Harra’s defense attorney for the 2018 trial.
Four former top executives of Wilmington Trust, including Harra, were facing prison time after being found guilty of bank fraud and conspiracy, but in 2021 a federal appeals court overturned the historic criminal fraud convictions.
Kelly said he didn’t understand why the case was ever brought forward.
“This case was an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars that literally ruined the lives of four innocent people,” Kelly said in January 2021. “Rob and his family have endured nothing less than a nightmare for almost 10 years now.”
In 2016, Kelly represented New Castle County Executive Thomas P. Gordon and the county in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former county Chief Administrative Officer David Grimaldi. The former county aide was seeking severance and unspecified damages. Grimaldi later withdrew that claim. Other claims made by him against Gordon and the county were later tossed out of court.
“I think the judge got it right,” Kelly said in 2018 after a Sussex County Superior Court judge dismissed a final defamation claim. “It was a big nothing burger.”
Kelly, who served on the Delaware Judicial Nominating Commission, was remembered as “a larger than life character,” by Gov. John Carney.
“He just had an incredible appreciation for every person he came in contact with, which was in part the result of being raised in his father’s bar,” Carney said.
“Mike had a great understanding of people, especially those who were down on their luck. And he cared about what matters most – his family, his faith, and his friends. What people don’t know about Mike is all the people he helped along the way – all the pro bono work he did and the advice he gave sitting around the bar. It went back to those values that were so important to him, passed down from his dad, John D. Kelly III.
“Mike was just such a huge presence in every room he walked into, and he’ll be greatly missed. Like so many people I’ve talked to, I find myself laughing through my tears as I think about the loss of Mike. Tracey and I are keeping Mike’s family and his many friends in our thoughts and prayers.”
Former Gov. Jack Markell also had kind words for Kelly.
“There are few people in this world who can generate laughter from 1,000 people at a Gridiron dinner, win tough legal cases that few lawyers would want to take on, lead a major U.S. law firm, help anybody and everybody who asks for a hand, and is a devoted husband and parent,” Markell said.
“Mike was all of that and more. He was a gem.”
While serving as chairman of New Castle County’s Board of Adjustment in the 1990s, Kelly often displayed shrewd judgment and his trademark funny quips.
In 1992, well-known builder John A. “Jack” Corrozi Sr. had to come before the Board of Adjustment to ask for a variance on a home he built for himself in Newark.
Corrozi, embarrassed, knew that without the variance he would have to knock down part of his garage and family room.
“I’d sue the builder if I were you,” Kelly joked to Corrozi after listening to the zoning appeal.
Corrozi mumbled he was considering it. He was granted the variance.
During a roast of retiring Delaware public defender Larry Sullivan in 2009, Kelly got some of the biggest laughs with his facetious comments.
Sullivan was a longtime friend of Kelly’s father, John D. Kelly III, a former sheriff and New Castle County register of chancery. Mike Kelly thanked the 72-year-old for being there during life’s tough moments.
“When I lost my job, you were there. When I lost my house, you were there,” Mike Kelly told Sullivan. “So what I’m trying to say publicly, Larry – you’re bad luck.”
Kelly, a graduate of Tower Hill School, Columbia University and Dickinson School of Law, had deep Delaware roots.
In 1889, his great-grandfather John D. “Whiskers” Kelly bought an Italianate three-story building at Delaware Avenue and North Du Pont Street.
The brick structure, built as a hotel around 1864 by William Wharton Jr., is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel, named after American Civil War Gen. John A. Logan, had a tavern on the first floor and rooms to rent upstairs. It also had a barbershop for a time.
“Whiskers” Kelly turned it into a tavern, hotel and a home for his large family. He passed the site onto family members through the years.
The Kelly family has said it is the oldest continuously run family-owned Irish bar in the country.
Mike Kelly’s father, John D. Kelly III, a co-founder of Wilmington’s St. Patrick’s parade, renovated the building in 1982. He added live entertainment in hopes of attracting a younger crowd.
Kelly’s Logan House has since become one of the state’s most popular taverns. It has undergone several renovations through the years and a rite of passage for many Delawareans is ordering a drink at the bar.
“It’s in my blood. I spent so much of my life here,” Kelly said in a 2014 Delaware Online/The News Journal interview with reporter Ryan Cormier shortly before the Wilmington landmark’s 150th anniversary.
Kelly said he worked as a bartender at the Logan House and, just like his father, he would oftentimes have to work double duty as a bouncer. Being an amateur boxer helped him handle unruly customers.
“I would say a ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Our Father’ before every shift. I never started a fight in my life, but I had to end a few,” he said.
Kelly said working at the family bar also helped him in his law career.
“When I’m in front of a jury, I’m not drawing upon what I learned at Tower Hill School or Columbia University. I’m drawing upon what I learned at the Logan House,” he said.
“That’s where I learned how to talk and relate to people.”
While Kelly had been battling cancer for years, he still would visit the Logan House where his presence was felt.
“As soon as he walked in the room, we knew he was there,” said Joe Mujica, Logan House’s general manager. “He lit up the room that he was in, whether it was with a story, a joke, just asking how your family was doing.”
Kelly’s genuine desire to help people gave him an energy that kept him going, Mujica said. It was also something that Kelly appreciated in others.
Mujica was a recently hired server at Logan House in July 2016 when he was at the bar on his day off. Seeing the staff swamped, Mujica began cleaning off a table where a stranger was sitting.
The man asked if he was working on his day off and they had a brief conversation. Mujica would later learn the man was Kelly.
“From knowing him now, it seemed he liked the enthusiasm with it and wanting to get things done,” Mujica said. “It was all about the team and making things better.”
Kelly’s survivors include his wife, Deanna Henderson Kelly; children Joanna Gerard Kelly and Michael Patrick Kelly Jr.; twin brother, John; and sister, Mary Ann Kelly MacDonald.
Friends and family can visit from 2 to 8 p.m. Thursday at McCrery Harra Funeral Home, 3924 Concord Pike. A Mass of Christian Burial will be at 1 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14 at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, 2013 Gilpin Ave., Wilmington. Burial will be private.
Contact Patricia Talorico at (302) 324-2861, email@example.com or on Twitter @pattytalorico. Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @eparra3.