Longtime Minneapolis resident James Clifford Kelly, football star and family man, dies at 100

16December 2021

He was a football star and a fighter pilot, but fame never interested him — James Clifford Kelly was mainly a family man who considered raising nine “happy, healthy children” to be his greatest accomplishment.

His children were with him when he died Dec. 1 at his home in Merrifield, Minn., of metastatic bladder cancer. He had turned 100 three days earlier.

He was born and lived most of his life in Minneapolis, serving as president of his senior class at Central High School in 1939. He studied mechanical engineering and played football at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind., at his father’s request, said son John of Austin, Texas.

“My dad really wanted to go to, I think, Carleton and become a phy ed teacher,” said John, who wrote a book about his father called “James Clifford Kelly: His First 25 Years 1921-1946,” filled with photos, graphics and other illustrations.

During World War II, Kelly left college in his junior year to become a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps, but the week before his squadron was scheduled to ship out for the China-Burma-India Theater, he was hospitalized with a severe case of poison oak and left behind.

So instead of combat duty, he was drafted to play exhibition football for the Fourth Air Force team. When the war ended, he had a shot at playing professional football for the San Francisco 49ers, John said, but did not pursue it.

“He was extremely humble,” said daughter Linda Sather of Brooklyn Center. “He was quite a guy but he would never want any fuss over himself. It was all about his family.”

He returned to Minneapolis after the war. He and his wife, Betty, were married for 65 years until she died in 2007. The couple had nine children. Kelly worked as a skilled craftsman — welder, carpenter and handyman — who “could build anything from a house to a go-kart,” John said.

He was particularly good at making things out of metal, John said, and enjoyed crafting children’s play equipment such as unicycles, skateboards, pogo sticks, swings, monkey-bars, teeter-totters and playhouses.

He lived for his children and grandchildren, John said in a eulogy: “If he was fishing, most likely one or two of them were in the boat with him. If he was cutting the lawn, most likely one or two of them were on his lap while driving the lawn tractor.”

Kelly, who loved to fish, retired in his late 50s and spent his last 40 years living on Mission Lake near Brainerd.

“Simplicity and humility were his virtues,” John said in his eulogy. “Flannel shirts and bib overalls were his preferred dress. Babies and dogs were his preferred companions. Fishing and welding were his favorites pastimes. Love and time were his greatest gifts.”

In addition to John and Linda, survivors include daughters Cathy Branch, who divides her time between Centerville and Severna Park, Md., Jennifer Kelly of Lino Lakes, Mary Plasencia of Dayton and Michele Erickson of Merrifield; sons Joseph of Rogers, Tom of Brooklyn Center and Peter of Minnetonka; a brother, Mike Kelly of Tomah, Wis.; 18 grandchildren and 26 great-grandchildren. Son Tom died of sudden cardiac arrest two days before his father’s death. Services have been held.

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