Dick Kelly never compromised.

“He was unique,” said Geraldine Delaney, a paralegal who met Kelly while working in Democratic politics. “While the rest of us moved on from the ’60s and were starting to make our compromises with reality and the world, Dick never did. There was a special purity of intention in his heart. Long political arguments often ensued, but at the end I could only respect his commitment to the vision of justice he held.

“I was just listening to an NPR interview with an attorney who represented a man recently released from Guantanamo. She is ready to leave the law because of her disappointment with our legal system – another person burned out from working for justice. It made me think about Dick who never gave up on making this a more just country. I wonder if there are enough young people coming up who will fight for justice the way Dick Kelly did.”

Richard J. Kelly, 71, of Oak Park, died at home from congestive heart failure and kidney disease on April 15, 2010. A lifelong Chicagoan and Oak Park resident since the mid-1970s, he was a people person, a passionate advocate for social justice, and a voracious reader. Beloved by those who knew him for his sense of humor and commitment to friends and family, he seemed to know everyone wherever he went, especially in the Chicago area. He taught in Chicago public schools for 20 years and drove a cab in the western suburbs for 30 years – at first in the summers and then full time after he left CPS. His passions were for family, friends, the arts, basketball, and the plight of people less fortunate than he was.

The oldest of six children in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood, he became an activist thanks to the witness and moral example of Rev. Andrew Greeley, assistant pastor at Christ the King from 1954-1964, who influenced many to join the nascent Civil Rights Movement and inspired Kelly to get involved in voter registration efforts during the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi (the same summer when three civil rights volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan).

Having solidified his commitment to working for civil rights and social justice, he participated in Martin Luther King’s Chicago visit in 1966 and various other civil rights and anti-war campaigns throughout the 1960s.

He married Karen Koko, also from the South Side of Chicago, and together they had one son, Michael Stokely Kelly, in 1968, whose middle name was inspired by Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a figure who had worked alongside his parents in the 1960s.

“My mom and dad said they gave me Stokely’s name,” Michael said, “because they figured with so many black children being named after white people, it was time to name a white child after an important black person.”

Moving to Oak Park in the mid-1970s, Kelly immersed himself in the St. Giles Family Mass Community. The “community,” as it has long been called by those who hold it dear, provided Dick with a social and spiritual home and was essential to the last 30 years of his life. He met his second wife, Margaret Field, there, and they lived together in south Oak Park for the last decade, working for fair housing for the city’s poor and leading book groups to foment activism to reform the Catholic church and fight for human rights around the world. A dynamic duo who made friends wherever they went, Margaret and Dick made their mark together and separately and helped make Oak Park the distinct and special place it is today.

He was educated completely by Catholic schools: Christ the King in Beverly, St. Ignatius High School, and Notre Dame University. He brought his faith and passion for others wherever he lived and worked, and he will be sorely missed by all those he touched over the years.

Fellow activist Rima Lunin Schultz recalled, “In the 1970s, there was a vigorous Illinois independent movement and Dick was part of it, working in the campaigns that elected state representatives like Jesse Madison and Bob Downs and judges like William Cousins and launched the careers of Danny Davis, and Ed Smith, culminating in the election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago.

“Living in Oak Park suited Dick – its geography gave it a strategic position in interracial, independent alliances that produced candidates committed to open housing, and who were fighting redlining and other disinvestments in neighborhoods that were becoming integrated. In Oak Park he was a leading voice for the rights of tenants and low-income people; he served on the village’s Community Relations Commission, often asking the difficult and even embarrassing questions about the community’s commitment to its stated ideals. Dick upset all stereotypes: growing up in a conservative, patriarchal church and being schooled in Roman Catholic institutions entirely, he became a feminist in the 1970s and campaigned for the ERA and pro-choice candidates and policies.

“Gregarious, intense, and passionate about politics, Dick and I joined in many a campaign to get independent, progressive candidates elected so our shared vision of an interracial society with economic and social justice could prevail.

“Dick, more than any other person I have ever met, in the academic world or outside it, had a love of the written word and of books that was almost like another religion for him. He had a feeling for the written word that was almost mystical and often brought me books he thought I would like to read, to share with him, the way other people would bring precious pieces of treasure to a friend.”

Larry Spivack, regional director of AFSCME Council 31, said, “Dick was an activist in the Chicago Teachers Union while he was a teacher. He was a loyal supporter of the union but a spirited defender of greater democracy within the union itself and sometimes found himself on the dissident side of the debate. Dick believed the fundamental core issue for changing society came from changing the economic structure of society. He was an ardent advocate that workers needed to be organized if we were to gain full economic democracy for citizens. As such, he was always on the side of workers’ struggles for fairness. Dick was consistent in his principles. He attended numerous local picket lines and forums, from steelworker struggles to the workers still on strike at the Congress Hotel. He was always at benefits for similar struggles and was a very good student of labor history.

“Dick and I spent many years together – more than 30 – talking about labor, art, theater, movies, politics and sports. The only thing that exceeded his passion for his alma mater, Notre Dame, was his lifelong desire to see a united and strong labor movement from which would grow true democracy for people from every walk of life.”

Dick Kelly was the husband of Margaret E. Field; the father of Michael S. (Lucy Fox) Kelly and step-father of Jason (Jennifer Chatlani) Rosado, Megan (David Skach) Rosado, Jason (Julie) Foras, and Jennifer (Brendon) Pollard; grandfather of Benjamin, Isaac, and Alfred Kelly; brother of Thomas, Jack, Suzanne, and Michael (Meg) Kelly and the late Jim Kelly; brother-in-law of Kathleen (Edward Ogata) Orr, William (Mary Ann) Field, Laurie Rostholder and Toddy Kelly; and uncle of Tom, Dan, Aileen, Josh, Rose, Alison, and Molly. In lieu of flowers, memorials to the St. Giles Community Elevator Fund or Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (chicagohomeless.org) are appreciated.

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