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In Memoriam: John P. Kelly

John Kelly
John Kelly (right) with Ray Meyer in 1999. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)
On Feb. 14, 2019, the DePaul and Lincoln Park communities lost one of their most prominent members: John P. Kelly, the owner of Kelly’s Pub. Kelly was known in the community not only as the owner of Kelly’s Pub, but also as a 36-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department. While there is no question the place he held in the Lincoln Park community was a momentous one, he also, along with the pub he owned for more than 60 years, has a special place in the history of DePaul.

Kelly’s Pub, originally called Kelly’s “L” Tavern, was opened in 1933 by Kelly’s father. One of nine children, Kelly spent his entire life in Lincoln Park, where he was baptized at St. Vincent’s Church and attended DePaul Academy. He was in his second year at DePaul University when his father died in 1957, and he left school to take over running the family business. This ultimately ended up being rather serendipitous for Kelly. In 1962, a woman named Polly went to Kelly’s Pub with one of her roommates. There she met John, and the couple married a year later. Eventually, Kelly was able to return to school, and he earned his B.A. from DePaul in 1968.

However, it is not his status as an alum that made John Kelly dear in the hearts of members of the DePaul community. Rather, it is the home away from home Kelly’s Pub became for them. In a 1986 interview with “The DePaulia,” Kelly discussed how Kelly’s Pub had maintained such long-lasting success despite the various neighborhood transitions Lincoln Park had undergone through the years. Kelly ultimately attributed this success to his father’s original vision of the tavern as a gathering place focused on socializing and conversation. 
Kelly's Pub in the 1970s
Kelly's Pub in the 1970s. (Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives)

“We try to make people feel welcome,” he explained in the article. “Again, what’ll happen if you don’t have the jukebox blaring, your tendency is to hold a conversation. And I find that if people communicate, they automatically enjoy themselves.” 

Ultimately, the bar’s success and its special place in the DePaul community was due to its ability to always make visitors feel like family, even as Chicago grew ever larger. The Kelly family has continued to live by the motto once inscribed on their matchboxes: “You’re a stranger here but once.”

For those of the legal drinking age, over the years, Kelly’s Pub has served as the setting for DePaul events large and small. Old issues of “The DePaulia” are filled with mentions of club meetings, receptions and other events hosted at the pub. The bar also was a regular hangout following basketball games, so much so that some articles in “The DePaulia” refer to going to Kelly’s as a key part of the basketball season. 

The easy familiarity of Kelly’s, along with the atmosphere of belonging cultivated and maintained by John Kelly, has made Kelly’s Pub so dear to the Blue Demon community. In “The DePaulia” article following his death, multiple students interviewed noted while they had never personally met Kelly, they often saw him in the bar and always felt welcome. Others stated the pub was a huge part of their social life at the university, explaining how they met some of their closest friends or always knew they could find a familiar face there. Kelly’s Pub ultimately is a place of comfort, a spot near the Lincoln Park campus that, for many, is just as familiar as any university building.

In an interview with the “Chicago Tribune” just days before his death, Kelly reiterated the bar is a place for community and conversation, and said what he wanted to be remembered for was “helping people.” By giving members of the DePaul and Lincoln Park communities a home away from home, a place to find a familiar face and feel free to be one’s true self, Kelly managed to accomplish just that.