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January 2022

Grounded in History
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Remembering Brother James T. Kelly

January marks the 129th anniversary of The Electrical Worker, and one man was instrumental in its creation and in the union's very survival in its earliest years: the IBEW's founding Secretary-Treasurer James T. Kelly.

Brother Kelly was born on a farm in Overton, Pa., on March 29, 1860. After graduating from the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in Towanda, Pa., he stayed on as a teacher until moving west in 1885 to pursue a career as a wireman. He settled in St. Louis around 1889 and soon met Henry Miller.

Together, the two men were the driving forces behind organizing the city's electricians. They chartered American Federation of Labor Local 5221 in 1890 with Kelly elected as vice president and Miller as president. While Miller traveled the country garnering support for a national convention, Kelly remained in St. Louis preparing the necessary infrastructure should the convention be successful. On Nov. 21, 1891, Kelly served as one of the 10 delegates at our founding convention and was elected the National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' first secretary-treasurer. His last action as an officer of AFL Local 5221 was to oversee its transition into IBEW Local 1.

Kelly served as secretary-treasurer from 1891 to 1897. He was responsible for drafting the first IBEW Constitution and ritual books, procuring all necessary supplies, maintaining per capita receipts, and overseeing the engraving of all charters and seals from his small office on 903 Olive St. in St. Louis. In 1893, he served as the first editor of The Electrical Worker, a year that was later rocked by a stock market crash followed by an unemployment crisis. Many of us have heard how Kelly mortgaged his house and sold his building association stock to help keep the IBEW afloat. What is not widely known is that Kelly had only just celebrated his marriage to Sarah Deppen in May, a few months before facing the barrage of crises.

Like Miller, Kelly never wasted an opportunity to organize while on the road. On his way to and from the 1894 AFL convention in Colorado, he organized locals in Denver; Butte, Mont.; Salt Lake City; Spokane, Wash.; Tacoma, Wash.; Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He did the same at the 1895 AFL convention in New York City, where he organized the first local in Schenectady, N.Y. Finally, he organized Cincinnati in 1896, also while attending the AFL Convention.

In 1897, at the Fifth Convention of the IBEW, the secretary-treasurer's report revealed that the brotherhood now operated with a substantial balance in the treasury, instead of a deficit. This was due in large part to the tireless efforts and personal sacrifices of Brother Kelly.

Unfortunately, it was not enough for him to secure re-election and Kelly, like Miller before him, returned to the tools. He found work as a journeyman wireman and was the electrical superintendent on several construction projects in St. Louis. It was during this time that his son John remembered how he "decorated a horse and buggy for several Labor Day parades in St. Louis."

Brother Kelly continued to attend IBEW conventions as a delegate from Local 1. Upon his retirement in 1930, the IBEW approved a monthly $50 pension. His earthly work over, Kelly died on March 27, 1930, after receiving his very first check. He was survived by wife, Sarah, and sons Eugene, James, John, Richard, Ambrose and Vincent. There is no question that without his vigorous determination, unfailing judgment, and wise counsel the IBEW would not stand as tall as it does today.

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The IBEW's founding Secretary-Treasurer, J.T. Kelly, mortgaged his own home to keep the brotherhood afloat in its earliest days.