G. Phillips Kelly ’58
G. Phillips Kelly ’58 died April 5, 2011.
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George Phillips Kelly '58
The Class of '58 lost its ‘leading man from central casting’ April 5, 2011, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Miami, of a brain abscess.
To most of us in the class after graduation Phil was something of an enigma, nothing mysterious as I came to learn. Rather it was the result of starting out at Amherst with friends who were in classes ahead of us and his natural reserve. But it was also a function of his lifelong movement around the country and the world, the complete fascination with his career in retailing and its inherent competitiveness, and an insatiable curiosity for the new and the different.
Phil came to Amherst from Moses Brown in Rhode Island where he earned distinction athletically as an all-state second baseman. We knew him as a solidly built, square-jawed, strikingly handsome young man (classmates used character names like Clark Kent and Jack Armstrong several times), but save for an occasional intramural contribution, he chose music instead of sports as his main extracurricular contribution. First as a member of our freshman singing group, the Ten Pins, then as a member of the DQ (later one of its directors), and then the Amherst Glee Club (eventually serving as its president), Phil displayed the kind of skill and commitment which allowed him to pick out a tenor harmony with finesse, always come to rehearsals prepared, and handle himself before crowds with exquisite ease and comfort.
Conversations with his classmates demonstrated how much we looked up to him and our awareness of the friendships he had with Pete Weiller, Harry Clark, Dick Hauser, and Crayton Bedford of the Class of ‘56. (Indeed, Phil joined Pete and Crayton on a summer trip to Europe after the 1956 Commencement. That was where Pete remembers an incident on the Riviera at Whisky A Gogo where after a particularly egregious anti-Semitic remark by one of the waitresses, Pete had responded to her with the shaken contents of a seltzer bottle. Predictably, it got the three of them thrown out after which Phil wryly remarked to Pete that it was "certainly one way to avoid paying the bill!")
As a peer Phil came across as mature beyond his years. A member of a class whose behavior could sometimes approach the sobriquet ‘rowdy,’ Phil was always prepared for his classes despite his frequent week night dates with a young woman whose own attractiveness was a match for his; how he managed such a schedule and keep up with his classes was a mystery to many of us that became a cause for envy. I remember a less-than-mature emanation of that when several of us spent the better part of an entire evening (after gaining access to his first-floor Stearns single though an open window) completely filling his room, floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-window with laboriously crumpled balls of newspaper. We perpetrators all went to bed; the next morning the hallway was three feet deep in balled up newspapers. Phil had somehow bulldozed them completely out of his room leaving them for us to deal with the next morning. So far as I knew or have since been able to learn, he never said a word about our prank to anyone; he just dealt with it and moved on. Such was our gentleman Phil!
Phil was active at Psi U serving as rushing chairman but he never lived in the house. Senior year he served as a freshman dorm proctor, a fitting role given his natural disposition but, in a sense, it also contributed at the very outset to the sense that many of us had that he was something in a sense apart from us. (Even one of his Psi U brothers asked me when we talked which fraternity he’d pledged; such was the under-the-radar sense that many of us had of Phil.) That was reinforced after Amherst; he didn’t come to reunions, didn’t contribute news notes, didn’t write a submission for the fiftieth despite assiduous efforts of a string of class secretaries. Without prompting this sense came equally from people who’d known him for some time after Amherst yet after whatever length of time together would later acknowledge they’d completely lost touch with him. In part that may have been a function of the numerous locations of his business career.
Together with his wife Marilyn of fifty years (an event they celebrated in Paris!) Phil went to work in retailing in positions which took him to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC (twice), Bangkok, and Ecuador. While working at Bloomingdales in New York he earned an MBA at Columbia. Phil was running R. W. Robinson’s in Los Angeles when he was brought to Marshall Field in 1978 to revamp the famous State Street store which had become increasingly dowdy over the years. He enlisted Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, and Liz Taylor in the successful effort, and six years later Phil moved on to start his own chain of menswear stores, Mallard’s. Twice Phil serve as president and CEO of Garfinckel’s in Washington, DC. The first time he was charged with growing it, the second time, intrigued by the possibilities associated with new ownership which turned out to be unfulfillable, he then was tasked, unfortunately, with closing it down. More recently, Phil served as an international consultant in Bangkok for two and a half years, and at the time of his death he was president of a large department store chain in Ecuador, Almacenes de Prati, headquartered in Guayaquil, Ecuador.
Phil loved his retailing career. He thrived on the competition, the constant innovation, the attention to design, the travel. It was a fertile field for satisfying both his curiosity and imagination. Every spring was different, every Christmas. New products made their appearance, new markets emerged. It was Phil’s element.
Throughout his life Phil was the consummate gentleman. A business colleague on a floor tour at one of his stores remembers him greeting all the employees by name to enthusiastic and animated responses to the man they all called "Mr. Kelly." Not only did he bounce back from occasional business adversity, but he made a point of rendering whole those who stood to lose by virtue of the shared misfortune. He was honest almost to a flaw; he simply disbelieved that anyone could be other than equally so. He seemed to have an inner compass which he was completely comfortable following even when it complicated things for him. A business colleague remembers counseling with him regarding the termination of a hugely problematic employee who, despite great accomplishments, had also proven to be unprincipled in a number of crucial ways. Phil wanted to be honest about the shortcomings; his colleague felt it would complicate the termination conference and counseled strongly against it because, given the particular flaws, it would prove a long and difficult conversation. Sometime later Phil came back saying, simply, "You were right!"
Phil and Marilyn (the holder of a Masters degree in architectural history) were supporters of the arts – painting, sculpture, and architecture; while in Chicago, Phil served on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Those business colleagues who knew the two together commented on how she helped Phil really come to life, a complement to his penchant for privacy and personal reserve. They traveled the country and the world together, took lessons in Thai and Spanish, walked local neighborhoods poking into stores, discovering out of the way museums, sampling local fare. (Marilyn called her husband an urban citizen; they never went to resorts preferring instead to explore the diversity of human culture and living whether it was the fascination with Buddhist Thailand or the streets of New York, or discovering an old barge canal in Paris and saluting the passing navigators with a glass of wine.)
Three more stories. A measure of the regard in which he was held in Ecuador may be seen in that, though Phil himself was not Catholic, after he died masses were said for him at the cathedrals in both Quayaquil and Quito.
Some weeks later Marilyn recalls a woman who described her loss in a way which was so indicative of Phil’s generosity with his time and his knowledge - the woman was contemplating a trip when she suddenly realized that "Mr. Kelly, her travel agent" was no longer there to provide the advice on restaurants, museums, stores and neighborhoods upon which she had come to depend.
Finally, as already noted Phil was a private person, and while running Robinson’s in Los Angeles he one day complained to Marilyn that he was finding difficulty finding 45 minutes when he could just be alone, without being queried, or sought out, or otherwise engaged. She took it seriously and for Christmas that year gave him a 45 minute glider ride and book on gliding. It caught Phil’s fancy and he quickly became a frequent visitor to California dry lakes where sail planes could be towed aloft. His proficiency grew; he continued to fly in Illinois, which is where he eventually earned his glider pilot’s license.
Phil is survived by Marilyn, his brother and sister-in-law, Bob and Lynn Kelly, and several nieces and nephews. Marilyn will be coming to Rhode Island after a stopover in Panama.
Hendrik D. Gideonse '58
I had many correspondents in preparing this. Principal among them were Marilyn and Phil’s brother Bob, Dick Hauser, Pete Weiller and Crayton Bedford of the Class of ‘56, classmates Bill Cantor, Norm Carr, Sam Chase, Martin Gross, Lee Harbach, John Lagomarcino. John Niehuss, and John Papa, and Bill Jones ‘59.
As long as these last lines are here, the posting of this text will not be finally completed until Marilyn’s return to the States and she has a chance to locate a handful of photos to afford us all a visual sense of who he became after Amherst. Notice of a service in honor of Phil this fall will be forthcoming via the ‘58 Listserv.