Valdez remembers gentle man who shaped the town forever
Much has been written about John Thomas Kelsey, who passed away last week at the age of 93.
His obituary in today’s newspaper lists many years of accomplishments, including success in business, military service during WWII and a lifetime of civic service. But it’s the man himself many in Valdez remember most.
“He was the EF Hutton of Valdez,” said lifetime resident Tom Gilson, who says he spent much of his childhood in the Kelsey household. “When John Kelsey talked, people listened. People had a lot of respect for him.”
Bill Walker, whose memories and relationship with “Mr. Kelsey” also spanned a lifetime, agreed.
“He was also a mentor to many people,” Walker said in an interview Monday. “He was always there for the community.”
Kelsey is often referred to by elected officials in Valdez as the “father of the city’s permanent fund.”
Walker credited Kelsey with spearheading efforts that resulted in Valdez financing the bonding for the Valdez Marine Terminal for the trans-Alaska pipeline, which resulted in the small little fishing village receiving a windfall of over $13,000,000; that fund is now worth close to $150 million.
“My recollections are more on a personal side,” Gilson said, remembering his teenage years. “We spent a lot of time at the Kelsey’s household.”
Walker did too.
“Lots of good memories of the Kelsey family,” Walker said. “Their home was our teen center.”
That relationship forged in his formative years continued throughout his lifetime.
Both men said, in separate interviews, that Kelsey was the ultimate hometown booster.
“He was always there for the community,” Walker said. “He never stopped giving.”
“He was always trying to make things better,” Gilson said. “When Valdez wanted some help with state issues, the town always turned to John Kelsey.”
Stanford Magazine, the publication of Kelsey’s alma mater, Stanford University, said this in its profile.
“When John Kelsey arrived at Stanford in the fall of 1938, his matriculation was not assured. The high school in remote Valdez, Alaska, was not accredited; Stanford accepted him on the condition that he come a few days early and take a series of tests. He passed, and proceeded to spend “four wonderful, beautiful years” on the Farm. ‘Stanford launched me,” Kelsey says. “It gave me a sense of security and confidence.’”
Kelsey passed on that legacy to countless others in Valdez and indeed, across the state.
Walker said he and wife Donna consulted with Kelsey before attending law school, the matter was that important and Kelsey’s opinion that significant.
“He wrote a recommendation for me,” Walker said.
Kelsey’s support of Valdez young people reverberates today.
“Oftentimes people don’t stop and listen to kids,” Gilson said. “He walked the talk. He didn’t talk just to hear himself talk.”
A full obituary is included in this edition of the Valdez Star.
Services for Kelsey will be held at the Valdez Civic Center this Saturday, September 7. The memorial will begin at 2 p.m. at the Valdez Civic Center, and a reception following at the Civic Center beginning at 6 p.m. The events are open to all friends and family. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the John Thomas Kelsey Memorial Scholarship Fund at First National Bank of Alaska to assist Valdez High School graduates.