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Joseph Patrick Kelly: 2011 Legacy Award recipient

By Gheni_Platenburg
May 15, 2011 at 12:15 a.m.

District Judge Joseph Patrick Kelly, left, and former District Judge Whayland Kilgore are honored as the recipients of the 2011 Legacy Awards.

What is the Legacy Award?Awarded by the Victoria County Bar Association, the Legacy Awards are given out every two years to two deserving recipients, who are 70 years old or older.

Recipients are individuals who practice law with integrity and enhance the community with their service, dedication and leadership.

Recipients were Judge Joseph Patrick Kelly and retired district Judge W.W. Kilgore.

"The two gentlemen were selected because they both have a strong commitment to public service both as lawyers and as district judges. They are highly respected in the legal community for their knowledge of the law," said Jill Sklar, president of the Victoria County Bar Association. "Victoria and its surrounding counties have benefited greatly because of their dedication to the profession."

For receiving the awards, $500 was donated to St. Joseph High School on behalf of Kelly, and $500 was donated to the Holy Name Society in care of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in honor of Kilgore.

A bright smile and a similar name were not the only things Joseph Patrick Kelly inherited from his father.

The middle child of three boys, Kelly also inherited his father's love of the law.

The boys' father, Joe E. Kelly, was an attorney and former district judge.

"He hoped we would become lawyers," said Joseph Kelly, 71. "He did not demand that we became lawyers."

Although not forced to follow in his father's footsteps, Kelly not only became an attorney like his father, he also became a district judge for the 24th district court, the same judicial district his father served in from 1963 to 1997.

His more than 40 years of service to the law landed him a 2011 Legacy award.

"I don't think of myself as being old enough to receive the award," said Kelly. "But I appreciate it."

Although his father and mother, who also went to law school but was never licensed, did not force a career path upon their sons, they did demand success.

Raised in a strict household, Kelly grew up playing sports, serving as an altar boy at St. Mary's Catholic Church, participating in school activities and excelling in academics, particularly mathematics.

Unbeknownst to the children, they also received an introduction in the law.

At the conclusion of trials, Kelly said his father would bring home the charge and show what evidence he used to argue the case.

After graduating from St. Joseph High School in 1957, Kelly attended Notre Dame University, where he graduated in 1961 with a bachelor's degree in business.

In 1963, he graduated from the University of Texas Law School after only 27 months.

As he prepared to take the Texas Bar Examination, Kelly was notified he had become the No. 1 man on the list at the Victoria County Draft Board and that he would be drafted immediately if he did not volunteer into one of the armed forces, prompting him to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps where he served for 39 months.

In 1967, Kelly returned to Victoria to practice law, starting off as an associate with the law firm Anderson, Smith and Null.

After four years, he left to become a partner at the Guittard and Henderson law firm.

All the while, Joe. E. Kelly quietly groomed Joseph Patrick Kelly to become a judge.

"I wouldn't say it was a conscious plan, but Dad would always call me to his house to help him with decisions he had to make. What I didn't realize was he was teaching me how to be a judge," he said. "I'll be forever grateful."

A district judgeship opportunity came knocking at Kelly's door in 1993, when Clarence N. Stevenson, who sat on the 24th judicial bench before Kelly, died suddenly.

At the encouragement of his father, Kelly wrote then-governor Ann Richards and asked her to appoint him to the post made vacant by Stevenson's untimely death.

He was notified that he had been appointed on July 9, 1993.

In a true father-son bonding moment, Kelly was administered the oath of office by his father on Aug. 9, 1993.

Kelly was subsequently re-elected for the post in 1994, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008.

During his time on the bench, Kelly has presided over a number of cases, including the State v. Howard, a capital murder case filed in Jackson County in which the defendant was convicted of killing a Department of Public Safety trooper.

While Kelly noted that some of the best aspects of his job were the opportunities to mentor young lawyers and to observe talented lawyers trying cases, he said the worst part of his job was making difficult decisions in short amount of times.

"Generally, you only hear about an hour of testimony before you have to make a decision that will affect the child," Kelly said. "Frequently, the evidence is insufficient to aid in making that decision."

Kelly shared the most valuable lessons he learned while on the bench.

"Do the right thing," he said. "In judgeship, we find the law, interpret it correctly and apply it fairly."

It is this keen wisdom that has led Kelly to be revered throughout the legal community.

"He is a great lawyer and a good judge. He is a very patient judge," said Jack Marr, a Victoria attorney who has known Kelly since 1975. "He does his absolute best to try and follow the law and rule on the basis of the law."

When the father of five and grandfather of 10 is not on the bench, he said he enjoys golfing, hunting, writing columns for his Notre Dame alumni newsletter and spending time with his family, which includes his wife of 46 years, Abbie, and his brother Mike, who works as an attorney for the Victoria County District Attorney's Office.

Not ready to give up being a judge, Kelly said he plans to run again in 2012.

"I enjoy being on the bench. I enjoy the lawyers and I'm in good health," Kelly said. "I've spent the last 40 years with something important to get up and do every morning. It has just become a part of my life."

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