As shocking and gruesome as was the crime — the motive for which is still a mystery — Jack Kelly’s fate was one that many of his journalistic colleagues had half-expected. Some, in fact, had warned him about the multiple dangers inherent in keeping such low-life company, but Kelly always laughed off the advice. “Jack always did have a hotshot approach,” said Maurice Lewis, one of the few local journalists interviewed last week by the Phoenix who forthrightly described himself as a long-time close friend of Kelly. “I always thought of him as suitable for the cast of The Wild Bunch — a movie about 20th-century adventures trying to relive the days of the Wild West. He was born a little too late for the adventure he craved.
“He was attracted to mobsters like a moth to a candle. Early on, he found a beat that would set him apart from the rest. He started to cultivate mob contacts as a way of getting into investigative reporting back before it became fashionable. And he loved that movie image. I don’t think he ever thought of it as anything other than a movie. But it was very real, and he just kept getting in deeper and deeper.”
At the peak of his career, the tall, bearded, tousled and bespectacled John A. (Jack) Kelly was as recognizable a figure as all but the superstar anchors on the local TV news scene. His deep, no-nonsense voice, his breathless Walter Winchell-like delivery, and his penchant for sensationalized, hard hitting exposes became his on-camera trademarks. A recurring misconception about the off-camera Kelly, though, was the belief that he was, by birth and upbringing, a Boston Irishman.
Only half of this was true. Kelly and his sister, Kathleen, who is two years younger, were born in World War II Philadelphia, the offspring of a traveling Mazola salesman and his wife, both New Jersey natives. The father’s occupation kept the family on the move — first to Manchester, New Hampshire, where Jack attended the first couple of grades of elementary school. The family then moved to Brighton, residing near Oak Square on Faneuil Street, and Kelly’s parochial education resumed at St. Columbkille’s, under the perhaps overly watchful eyes of such Sisters of St. Joseph as Sister Mary Davida (once described by Kelly as “the five-foot-seven, 220-pound running back from the Framingham Novitiate”) and Sister Octavia (who, Kelly later remembered, publicly berated a tight-sweatered co-ed for “advertising what she wasn’t mature enough to sell”).
Kelly’s whimsical recollections of such straight-laced educational experiences appeared in “The Sisters and the Kids,” an article he wrote for the Globe’s Sunday magazine in May of 1973. In it, Kelly (who was placed in a front-row seat on the first day of school, “in easy reach of Sister’s long wooden pointer from a sitting position”) recalled the frightening day his father was summoned by Sister Celeste, who then said of Jack: “He has so much potential. If only he would try harder and stop distracting the rest of the class with his antics.” As punishment for such characteristic carrying-on, Kelly — at age 12 — was sentenced to spend two weeks in the convent, a humiliating fate. Kelly also had strong, if painful, memories of Sister Octavia and her peculiar habit of sneaking into the boys’ room so as to catch students standing at the urinals smoking — at which point she’d scare the hell out of them by twisting their earlobes from behind. “The difficulty came in deciding which embarrassment to hide first,” Kelly wrote.