The passing of Denis Kelleher, a major figure in the Irish American community who gave back in spades to his beloved Ireland and to America, marks the end of an extraordinary life journey.
Denis Kelleher, a man who came to America from Kerry with less than $50 in his pocket in search of a better life and determined to provide for his widowed mother back home, instead became one of the great Irish success stories of any generation.
When he passed away aged 80 at the weekend he left behind an incredible legacy of business and personal success, an immense philanthropic contribution to numerous causes including many Irish and a reputation unmatched in the Irish American community.
Irish America's loss
He was a key supporter of the Staten Island Foundation set up to help the needy of the borough.
“A beautiful soul and a righteous man - that was Denis,” said Staten Island Foundation chair Kathryn Rooney.
“Mr. Kelleher was deeply affected by his experience as a poor, young immigrant in his journey to America. His gift was his ability to see his own suffering in his youth, his vulnerability, and his desire to become rooted in the American experience, in other immigrants’ lives,” said the Rev. Terry Troia, President, and CEO of Project Hospitality, one of Denis’s main charitable focuses.
Denis was first and foremost a family man, whose life longer partner Carol was very much at the center of his world, as well as his three children, and many grandchildren.
From Rathmore, County Kerry, his work on behalf of Irish issues such as immigration reform, peace in Northern Ireland, tackling the issue of rural suicide in Ireland, education for minorities, and huge support to St John’s University was just part of an incredible contribution to a community.
St. John's University mourns the passing of Denis P. Kelleher, Chair Emeritus of the Board of Trustees at St. John's. Denis Kelleher was a proud #SJUAlumnus, a generous benefactor and a visionary trustee who guided the University as Board Chair. https://t.co/ex4n6Z6nxX pic.twitter.com/b6SGf4goln— St. John's Alumni (@stjohnsalumni) November 23, 2019
The Irish American community recognized his generosity and genius by electing him Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade, in 2005 and inducting him to the Irish America Hall of Fame, in 2011. He was also named to the Ellis Island Foundation list of medalists. He was a founder investor in IrishCentral.com and believed passionately in highlighting the Irish contribution to America.
An Irish emigrant success story
He gave back in spades to Ireland, serving on the Taoiseach’s (Irish Prime Minister) Economic Advisory Board and invested heavily in local companies in Ireland, especially in his beloved Kerry. He purchased the old Lord Ventry estate, in Kerry, and threw it open to Irish local groups and visiting American dignitaries. Cardinal Timothy Dolan was a special visitor and struck up a strong relationship with Denis.
His company, Wall Street Access, became one of the most successful investment advice and discount brokerage companies on the street, which attracted major investors.
Denis’s close friends were with Warren Buffet, Coca Cola President Don Keough, and noted value investor Tom McInerney, among others.
He loved America from the day he landed. In a matter of days, the bright young Kerryman charmed his way into a job at Merrill Lynch. In less than a month he went from messenger boy to payroll clerk.
Kelleher had excelled in math, economics, and accounting at St. Brendan’s, in Killarney, and, determined to continue his education, he enrolled at St. John’s University at night as he worked his way up the ladder at Merrill Lynch.
Although it’s well over half a century since Kelleher landed in New York, he always remembered how awestruck he was by the city.
He told Irish America Magazine “It was early in the morning and all I remember is thinking about how beautiful the city was. The sun was glistening off the snow on the ground and on the rooftops. It was magical.”
From Kerry to the White House
Soon after the penniless emigrant from Kerry moved in very different circles. He called people like Buffet and Dolan good friends and was an early investor in Buffet’s extraordinary Berkshire Hathaway fund.
He was a frequent invitee to the White House for his work on peace in Ireland and met several American presidents. When Pope Francis visited New York, Denis was among the select group who attended Cardinal Dolan’s private reception.
He hosted Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams as part of his fierce commitment to the Irish peace process.
Remembering Kelleher, Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams stated:
"I learnt tonight of the death of Dennis Kelleher with great regret… a man who personified the best of Irish America. His was the Irish American story of huge financial success gained through intelligence, ability, and hard work.
“I met him in his New York office shortly after I got the visa to travel to America. Niall O'Dowd introduced us. He kept a photograph of that first meeting on the wall of his office
“He was very proud of his republican ancestry and remained true to the ideal of a united Ireland through peaceful means.
“He was a strong supporter of the peace process and he and I met to discuss its progress.
“He was the epitome also of that great Irish American spirit of philanthropy, quietly supporting charitable causes both in America and Ireland.
“My deepest sympathy to his wife Carol, his family and his many friends."
"Dream big, work hard"
It was an incredible journey for the young Kerryman. There was no better way to see that than when you stood in his corner office on Battery Place you looked out over New York harbor and saw Ellis Island the Statue of Liberty, all the great American landmarks and you realized the extent of his remarkable journey.
Soon after landing he first settled in Brooklyn with help from an uncle who had emigrated before him. After some time there, he moved to the Bronx where he enjoyed an Irish scene that felt “just like home.”
After establishing himself in a house with friends, he rolled up his sleeves and began his quest to become successful.
But he was soon asked by the US military to put the pause button on his accelerating career. Kelleher spent five-plus years serving in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
He returned to New York when his time was served and continued his career track in the financial industry. He served in various high-level positions, including a stint as president of Ruane Cunniff & Co. Inc. and as Vice President and Treasurer of the Sequoia Fund.
Kelleher said there is no big secret behind his achievements and happiness.
“I’ve always had the motto: dream big, work hard, learn constantly and have fun while doing so,” he said.
In 1981, he founded his own firm, Wall Street Access, and for over 35 years later, he continued, as chairman and CEO, to provide the vision for the firm, which specializes in institutional research, trading, and money management.
One would have expected the office of such a highly successful Wall Street executive to be adorned with finance books and various accolades, but portraits of family and friends, and pictures of Ireland provided warmth and atmosphere.
Love of family, community, and home
Ireland was never far from his thoughts and his role in creating community growth, most notably as a major investor in Kerry Airport, helped put a wage packet in the hands of many Irish back home.
Kelleher was always warm and welcoming to journalists though reluctant to talk about himself, he mentioned his family at every opportunity.
“Family is very important to me,” he said. He credits his wife Carol, his three children Denis, Sean and Colleen (two of whom work in the firm) and many grandchildren as the driving forces behind his perseverance.
“I enjoy what I do, but they keep me motivated,” he said.
He also believed strongly in helping others. In an effort to pass on his good fortune in his local borough of Staten Island. He and his wife, Carol, set up an organization called the Good Deeds Foundation. One endeavor was to establish a middle charter school for Mexican children living on Staten Island.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life so it’s important for me to give back to those in need. But I couldn’t do it without Carol,” he said. He spoke movingly of the companionship she has shown him through the years and her dedication to the various charities and trusts they have founded together.
Kelleher experienced the pain of emigration early in life when his father had to leave the family for short periods of time to work in England.
“He couldn’t get leather [for his shoe-making business] in Ireland during the war so he went to England and ran a factory,” Kelleher recalled.
“Times were very tough back then, Ireland was a third world country, but we got through it because my dad was a great man.”
He added that without fail his father sent a check home every two weeks to feed the family and keep them well.
He stayed very much in touch with the current economic situation in Ireland and the fact that many young people over the years were once again facing emigration. He was a major contributor to Irish groups who fought for immigration reform. He always loved to meet recent immigrants and hear their stories and offer advice.
He was a contributor to the American Ireland Fund, a director of The New Ireland Fund, a member of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the Staten Island Foundation.
He served on the board of trustees of St. John’s University and served as the board’s chairman for eight years. In 1995, he was recognized with the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and in 2005 he led the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue serving as the Grand Marshal. He was honored by Irish America magazine as one of the Wall Street 50, and Business 100 and is included in the book Greatest Irish Americans of the 20th Century, compiled by Irish America Magazine.
He lived a wonderful life achieved the American dream yet never forgot his humble roots or those in need. We will never see his likes again.
Denis' funeral arrangements are as follows:
Visitation - Casey Funeral Home, 350 Slosson Ave, Staten Island, NY 10314 - Nov 30, 7 - 9pm, Dec 1, 2 - 4pm, and 7 - 9pm
Funeral Mass - Dec 2, 12- 1pm @ St. Ann's Church, 101 Cromwell Ave, Staten Island, NY 10305.
Entombment - Dec 2, 1:30 - 2 pm - Moravian Cemetery, 2205 Richmond Road
Staten Island, NY 10306.
Denis will be interred in Moravian Cemetry, where, in 2014, two coffins containing the remains of some of the thousands of Irish Famine dead were put to rest having been quarantined and eventually buried in a mass grave, having never realized their own American dream.