Folks who read this Blog always marvel at my memory of the people I write about. Well guess what? Even though today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant played an integral role in perhaps the single most important moment of my life, I don’t remember a second of it. On June 14, 1954 in the delivery room of the old Amsterdam City Hospital on Guy Park Avenue, Dr. Edwin Kelly brought me into this World, deftly performing the umbilical chord cut and tie off that would give me a trademark “Kelly Belly” for the rest of my life.
Instead, my first memory of this man was not until perhaps four years later and it was the gentle touch of his fingers feeling for nodes on both sides of my neck that I remember well. He always spoke to me in a soft soothing voice and I remember when he gave me one of those damn shots, he would always do so with an “I’m sorry this hurts” sort of look in his kind twinkling eyes. I screamed anyway but never in anger at him because he would always seem to be as relieved as I was that the painful part was over.
My final memory of Dr. Kelly was of going to see him in his very cool new office in a building that used to serve as the city Fire Chief’s home. It was located in a park-like plot of property alongside Amsterdam’s old main Fire House, about where West Main Street became East Main Street. Those gentle hands, those kind eyes, that classic old office remain the almost Rockwell-esque visual that still pops inside my head when I hear the phrase, “family doctor.”
But since I was just twelve-years-old the last time my Mom took me to see Dr. Kelly, there was an awful lot about his remarkable life I did not know about. Fortunately, Dr. Kelly’s second oldest son, Tim Kelly happens to be a regular reader of this blog and I sent him a message asking him to help me fill in details about his Dad’s life. What Tim sent me as a response was so well written and so compelling that I had to ask him if I could share it verbatim with all readers of this blog. Fortunately he agreed and so without further adieu:
My father was born Edwin Brennan Kelly on April 12, 1904, in Amsterdam. His father, Thomas Kelly, was born in Amsterdam in 1863, and his mother, Margaret Brennan, was born in St. Johnsville, NY, in 1870. Though Thomas “Big Tom” Kelly was listed in the old City Directories of the 1880s and 1890s as being a “tinsmith”, he was actually a professional gambler, well known for being a dealer in the card game known as “faro”. He ran gambling rooms at different locations around the city at different times in his life, including one that was on the second or third floor of a building on East Main Street, across the street from the old bus station.I have his old faro table and there are cousins who have other artifacts such as some old one-armed bandits and a beautiful roulette wheel.
Margaret Brennan came from a family of ten and moved to Amsterdam in the early 1880s with 7 or 8 of her siblings to a home at 49 Reid Street. The City Directories of the 1890s list her as a “weaver”. She and Thomas Kelly married on December 27, 1899. Between 1900 and 1908 they had 4 sons: John, Thomas, Edwin and Joseph. The boys all attended St. Mary’s School, which was just a short walk from their home at 22 Liberty Street.
Like his older brothers before him, Edwin quit school at about age 16 to help support the family. He moved to Cleveland, Ohio for several years to live with his Irish relatives while he worked in the steel mills that lined the Cuyahoga River. Decades later, that river became famous for being so polluted by industrial waste that it actually caught fire. His experiences at the factories in Cleveland were life-altering and made him determined to complete his high school education and seek another type of profession. So he returned to Amsterdam and thanks to the kind assistance from the sisters at St. Mary’s School, he completed his junior and senior years in a single year, graduating in 1928 at the age of 24.
He then attended Union College, graduating in 1932, followed by 4 years at Albany Medical School. Although I don’t know how, when or where they met, I imagine it might have been during his Union College years that he met the much younger Evelyn Mattei (born December 1912), who hailed from Cleveland Ave on the South Side. She was the daughter of an Italian immigrant father and a Polish immigrant mother. I don’t imagine that the staunchly Irish “Big Tom” Kelly approved of the match because, although he had agreed to pay for Edwin’s education at Albany Medical School, he did so with the understanding that Edwin would not get married. Edwin agreed.
Nonetheless, on August 18, 1932, they were secretly married at the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel by Rev. John Reidy. Edwin was living in Albany at the time and Evelyn remained with her parents on Cleveland Ave. However, the secret proved too big to keep and, somehow, “Big Tom” disovered the truth and, true to his word, withdrew all financial support for Edwin’s education. Thanks to a loan from his older brother John, he was able to finish medical school and begin his practice around 1937, in an apartment the family lived in on East Main Street, across the street from St. Mary’s Church, above where Johnny’s Seafood restaurant would one day be located.
Between 1935 and 1954 they had ten children: Ann, Kathleen (Pat), Mary, Corinne (Teenie), Michael, Elizabeth (Betsy), Alice, Timothy, Christine and Thomas. Ann died earlier this year, Pat died of cancer in 2003 and Tommy died in a car accident in 1974. There are a total of 25 grandkids and about another 25 great grandkids. Amazingly, although Edwin and Evelyn lived their entire lives in Amsterdam and all ten of their children grew up and graduated from high school in Amsterdam, not a single one of the ten children lives within 150 miles of their hometown.
My father was the stereotypical old-fashioned family doctor with the black medical bag , which he would take with him on house calls. But from his early days and throughout his entire medical career, he was always especially devoted to delivering new babies into the world, cutting thousands upon thousands of umbilical cords, and stamping each one of them with his or her very own “Kelly Belly”. I remember one late night in particular, hanging out at Baia’s Tavern in the early hours of a Saturday night/Sunday morning, with a couple dozen or so people, when the subject somehow turned to my father, who had been dead for about five years by then. One of the guys at the bar told me that my father had delivered him, saying, “I’ve got a Kelly belly!” He then pulled up his shirt to show it off. It turned out that just about everyone at the bar, except for me, had the proverbial “Kelly Belly”. It was a sight to behold, a barroom full of semi-inebriated patrons, all with lifted shirts, displaying and comparing their Kelly bellies.
Soon after their fifth child and first son, Michael was born in 1943, the family moved from East Main Street to their own (larger) house at 235 Market Street.
My father loved to read and had a library filled with shelves of all kinds of books. He had a special affection for all the Irish writers of his time. Entering his library felt like entering a chapel. He was a light sleeper and a bit of an insomniac and he could be found at any hour of the night sitting at the kitchen table, immersed in his latest book. He passed on his love of literature and language and learning to all of his children. He also had a great, sometimes very dry, sense of humor and loved funny stories, clever word play and corny jokes and puns, which were also passed down to all of us. In that vein he loved James Thurber and Ogden Nash.
He took great delight in becoming a grandfather and loved his nickname, “Big Daddy-O”. All the grandkids still refer to him by that beloved moniker.
He was a Kennedy democrat and, to me, he like Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, possessed a larger-than-life compassion and concern for the common man and the plight of the needy and less fortunate. The first time I was old enough to go to New York City on my own, I asked him for a suggestion on what attractions to visit. Without hesitation he told me to go to the Bowery, notorious for being a home to drunkard, drug-addicts and all varieties of down-and-outers. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased with such a suggestion. But I took his advice and found myself appreciating why he made that suggestion and what he was trying to teach me. He definitely shaped my worldview with his devotion to his patients, his dedication to his profession, and his compassionate concern for the world at large.
One experience that had a huge impact on me occurred when I was still pretty little, I was sitting at the kitchen table with him while he was reading a book because I just wanted to be around him. There was an annoying mosquito buzzing around my head. When it finally landed on the table, I raised my hand to swat it and he stopped me and asked why I wanted to kill it. I hadn’t even thought about the “why” of it, because it seemed natural to want to kill such an annoying and insignificant insect. He explained to me that even mosquitos had a purpose, had their own nervous systems and senses. But the thing he said that left the lasting impression was “Just because something is small doesn’t mean it is unimportant”. I have carried that lesson with me my entire life and know that he was referring to more than just insects.
My father died in his sleep in the early hours of June 24, 1968, at the age of 64. The nurse at his office called the house looking for him, because he was late for work and had a waiting room full of patients. The death certificate cause of death is “acute myocardial infarction”.
Thank you Tim Kelly.
This former Lyons Street business proprietor was also born on April 12.