John B. Kelly Sr.

A tale of four commodores: In the board room at #4 Boathouse Row, there is a plaque that lists all the commodores of the Schuylkill Navy, beginning in 1856. John Bergen recently sent me some rowing memorabilia and it included the regatta program from the 1966 Dad Vail Regatta. John's father was Dr. John Bergen, one of the great men of rowing in his time and a Schuylkill Navy commodore. The program includes this reflection on John B. Kelly, Sr., another commodore, written by Jack Seitz, yet another commodore.

Clete Graham



By John A. Seitz

There is an oarsman in today's regatta whose name does not appear in the program. He is sitting just before the finish line, but he will never cross it. He sits and watches the Schuylkill, today sardined with scullers and sweeps; youth rowing to manhood.


I can hear the skeptics now, "Oh, it's just the statue that's supposed to look like John B. Kelly, Sr." and "Those kids aren't rowing anywhere except to the finish line," or "What's that statue doing here anyhow?"


I'll begin with the latter. What purpose does the statue serve? Surely it is not to memorialize Mr. Kelly as an athlete; he doesn't need that. His accomplishments in rowing are well known, especially as an Olympics Singles Champion. But Mr. Kelly was not a strict adherent to the one man - one boat theory. In the 1920 Olympics he became the only man to ever win the Singles and Doubles events. He repeated the Doubles victory in the 1924 Games. He competed in every event in sculling and collected the greatest number of championships ever won by an individual. How could anyone need to be reminded of such a rowing record?


Although someone draped a "Kelly for Brickwork" T-shirt over Mr. Kelly's statue, much to the surprise and amusement of Mrs. Kelly and the many dignitaries who attended the unveiling last summer, surely the statue does not serve to remind us of his business success or his social contributions; his rising from apprentice bricklayer to President of the largest bricklaying company in the country, John B. Kelly, Inc., and President of the Atlantic County Racing Association; his serving as the President of the Fairmount Park Commission or fathering an internationally famous family including Jack, Jr., and Princesse Grace de Monaco.


Surely the statue dose not serve to remind us of his physical image. The sculptor, Harry Rosin, will tell you that probably Mr. Kelly never really looked like that; the face of the state is a composite, made from photographs taken at intervals during his life.


Then what purpose does it serve? To see it we have to look deeper, perhaps not at the statue itself, but at its reflection in the murky Schuylkill where the water constantly tries to obliterate the image but continually fails. Mr. Kelly must have recognized early in his career that he was not rowing only against the man in the other boat, but also against himself and the river, Nature. I believe that Mr. Kelly was curious of and discontented with Nature. The curious man can discover the laws of nature; the discontented man can conquer them. "What goes up, must come down," but the discontented man can orbit satellites that will not come down. Some poets can write of the awe and beauty of Nature, praising it, but Mr. Kelly must have recognized it as his enemy for he conquered it. He conquered Nature in every race when he forced his body to continue when it was physically depleted. He conquered Nature everytime he forced a shell of wood across wind and water faster than Nature would allow other shells. Mr. Kelly conquered Nature not only because he was curious, but also because he was discontented.


Therefore we can conclude that the purpose of the statue is to cause curiosity and discontent so that we too can succeed. Mr. Kelly sits and stands to remind us that we must become curious of our environment and become discontented with it, to sight a straight course and row our first strokes against it, and thereby learn the difference between a rower and an oarsman; between youth and manhood. Now when you look at the statue meditate not on his accomplishments, though they make for pleasant meditation, but meditate on his method of accomplishing; become curious and discontented. Take some Kelly inspiration and mix it with your last quarter perspiration.