Money should not be your priority. It’s a need that must be met, but it is not the most important need. Helping others, family, improving communities with lasting impact; these should be top priorities.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing former Maryland state senator Francis “Frank” Kelly Jr.
Guided by his dedication to family, faith and community, the Honorable Francis X. Kelly Jr. has carved out an exemplary role in public service, business and civic involvement — a career grounded in his spiritual commitment to personal ethics and professional integrity.
A resident of Hunt Valley, Maryland, Frank and his wife, Janet, in 1976 founded a business in the basement of their Timonium home to assist owners of small companies acquire affordable health insurance benefits for their employees. Today, Kelly & Associates Insurance Group (KAIG) is one of Maryland’s fastest growing privately held firms. It is the region’s leading health insurance broker/administrator with approximately 10,000 corporate clients. The expanding enterprise (KELLY), now run by their four sons, includes other entities that provide payroll and retirement plan services and, together, KELLY now employs approximately 450 people at its Sparks and regional offices. Frank is the Chairman of KAIG.
He is a graduate of Villanova University, with a Bachelor of Science degree in economics, a major that has proved its value. In 1979, Frank won election to the Maryland State Senate representing the citizens of northern Baltimore County. It was the start of a 12-year tenure defined by leadership, effectiveness and compassion.
Senator Kelly sponsored Maryland’s Spending Affordability Law, which created the Spending Affordability Committee in 1984 and has since saved taxpayers millions of dollars. He also supported legislation that helped create the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), the University System of Maryland and the upgrade and revamping of the Medevac helicopter fleet.
He worked closely with Dr. R Adams Cowley, the father of shock trauma, and was primary sponsor of the law creating the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. The Honorable Francis X. Kelly Distinguished Professorship in Trauma Surgery, the nation’s first chair in trauma surgery, was named by The University of Maryland School of Medicine after Mr. Kelly in 2000. This professorship is held by Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, who is considered the finest trauma surgeon in the world.
In 1984, Senator Kelly was part of a team of legislators that helped pass legislation, signed into law by Governor Harry Hughes, that led to the successful separation of the financially challenged University of Maryland Hospital from the University of Maryland, creating the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS). This private, not-for-profit entity is today a multibillion network of 13 hospitals that serves as a national model of stability, patient safety and medical innovation.
For the next 35 years following its founding, Mr. Kelly continued his passion for and commitment to UMMS’ success by serving in numerous board and committee roles. He served as chairman of the Shock Trauma Board of Visitors from its inception through 2019 as well as chairman of the Board of University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, a role he assumed in 2012 and held for seven years. Mr. Kelly is also a former member of the University of Maryland Medical Center board.
Mr. Kelly has been a trusted adviser to governors of both parties and to other political and business leaders. He is such a driving force for positive change that two successive governors from different parties appointed him to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents where he served from 2005–2016.
In 1996, Frank was asked by Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger to help revamp the Community College of Baltimore County. As board chair from 1996–2005, he consolidated three separate colleges (Catonsville, Essex and Dundalk) into a single, multi-campus institution that is thriving as the state’s largest community college system. CCBC’s Hunt Valley Center is named in his honor. Frank also served 14 years as vice chair of the Morgan State University Board of Regents from 1991–2005.
In 2011, Frank and Janet Kelly were named the Outstanding Philanthropists of the year by the Maryland Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. They also were honored by The Children’s Guild, which named its Autism Center after them in 2012.
He is immediate past chair of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and remains on its board. He helped spearhead the $650 million capital campaign of the University System of Maryland, Baltimore; Shock Trauma’s $160 million building campaign, and has been prominent in revitalizing the Calvert Hall College High School campus. Frank is also an active member at Caves Valley Golf Club where he sits on the Board of Directors.
In 2016, Frank was named an inaugural inductee in the Baltimore Sun’s Maryland Business and Civic Hall of Fame as well as the Catholic Business Person of the Year by the Catholic Business Network of Baltimore. His other awards include: the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center’s “St. Joseph the Worker Award,” the Calvert Hall President’s Medal, first recipient of the Baltimore Association of Health Underwriters’ “Person of the Year” award; the Maryland Association of Health Underwriters’ Hall of Fame; the Maryland Motor Truck Association’s “Man of the Year;” Stuart Macht Award for Business Excellence (Baltimore County government); Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce’s Business Hall of Fame; the Chimes Hall of Fame; the Dyslexia Tutoring Foundation’s “Man of the Year;” the American Trauma Society’s Distinguished Achievement Award, and the Msgr. Bonner High School (Drexel Hill, PA) Hall of Fame. Frank Kelly has been recognized as one of the top 100 Irish business leaders in the United States by Irish America magazine.
In 2019, “Surrender to Win, The Story of The Honorable Francis X. Kelly Jr.” was published. Beginning on the stoops of Brooklyn, the book follows Frank’s journey through marriage, raising a family, and the founding and continued growth of KELLY, to his service in the Maryland State Senate and beyond, all while sharing the experiences and simple principles that have guided his approach to life.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Senator Kelly! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My father taught me that it is better to give than to receive. As a philanthropist and community supporter, I’ve found that it not only feels good, but it’s a lot of fun! When we moved to the Baltimore area decades ago, my wife, Janet, and I wanted to sink our roots deep into the community. After we started our business, we actively sought ways to support our community and other causes. Janet and I are devout Christians and we’ve found that you can’t out-give the Lord. Following that principle, I have served on many boards to help raise money for entities here in Baltimore and around the world.
Through our community involvement, it led to some connections with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation (CRSF). Several years ago, I met Cal Ripken Jr. and we became fast friends. A short while after that, he asked me to chair the event committee for CRSF’s annual gala. We raised around $1 million that year to help support underserved kids. CRSF’s mission is to help at-risk children through effective programs and the building of parks and STEM Centers. I joined the foundation’s board after that and cherish the role every single day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Early on in my board tenure here at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, several of us were down at a fundraising banquet in Naples, Fla. The main reason for the banquet was to raise money to begin our Youth Development Park initiative and we planned to start with just a handful of sites. I was one of the speakers, and I was already fired up about the project. Well, I let my passion go a little overboard when I announced we were going to build 50 fields in the first five years. Cal Jr.’s jaw hit the floor! CRSF president and CEO Steve Salem was speechless. There had been zero discussion of such an audacious goal, and everyone thought I was out of my mind to suggest it.
Cut to five years later and we had built 71 parks, with 30 more in various phases of development. Heading into spring of 2021, we are now about to open our 100th field! It may have been an astronomical reach at the time of the banquet, but the entire CRSF team and our generous donors pulled together and far surpassed it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This goes back to 1979, when I was in my first year as a Maryland state senator. I was so new that I mostly listened and did not speak in hearings. I wanted to learn before I spoke. Literally, I did not open my mouth until the last few weeks of the session. When I decided to ask a question, it happened to be of a senior senator with nearly 50 years of experience. He called me out in front of everyone by asking “Is the senator from Baltimore County on the subject matter?”; legislative lingo basically questioning my expertise on the subject and if I was recognized as a speaker in this matter. Since I wasn’t “on the subject matter,” the president of the Senate could gavel me. I panicked, so I quickly sat back down and kept quiet.
My colleagues told me I had to learn to stand my ground when challenged like that. I took that to heart and decided to handle it in my own way, with guts but also with a little humor. A couple of weeks later, that same senior senator was now the lead speaker on a bill. I found the right time to stand up and ask if he would yield to a question. He turned to me and I asked, “Is the senator from the Eastern Shore on the subject matter?” He started laughing, put the microphone down, walked all the way to my seat in the back row of the senate (where the rookies are), got down on one knee, grabbed my hand and kissed it, then said “Welcome to the Senate.” The entire chamber broke out in laughter. Unbelievable way to get accepted into politics, right?
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
I’d love to! The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, runs many initiatives and the list continues to grow.
Our biggest drive right now is constructing the synthetic-surface Youth Development Parks (YDPs). These multipurpose, low-maintenance facilities serve as outdoor classrooms designed to provide recreational, educational, and athletic experiences for kids who desperately need a guiding hand. These YDPs not only help fill a critical void, but help transform communities where the need is so great. Once we complete construction, we then turn the parks over to community organizations with great track records, such as Living Classrooms and Boys & Girls Clubs of America. In nearly a decade, the foundation has raised and gifted over $117 million through its YDP program.
Our Badges for Baseball program creates positive engagements between police and kids in the community. In a time when there is often a lack of trust between the community and law enforcement, this program helps build relationships based on mutual understanding and highlighting role models. Created in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice, this life skills training program pairs at-risk youth with law enforcement mentors from local communities. Our mentors use team sports to teach valuable life lessons. Devised to deter juvenile delinquency, Badges targets America’s most vulnerable youth, including those in low-income families and single-parent homes, children of parents on active military duty, and youth with disabilities. Each Badges site receives sports equipment, training, ongoing support and our life skills education materials. Each year, our youth partners run Badges in several hundred communities across the U.S., touching the lives of over 40,750 youth with the help of more than 3,100 mentors.
Our new STEM Center initiative allows us to donate science, technology, engineering and mathematics education tools to schools. As of early 2021, the foundation has opened 65 STEM Centers in elementary and middle schools across the country, and has distributed over 10,000 at-home STEM kits.
CRSF has several other programs, as well, and is always looking to grow and refine what we offer.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I have been fortunate enough to be personally involved with organizations and causes impacting vast numbers of people; from building wells in villages in Uganda, to strengthening athletic programs here in Baltimore City and Baltimore County such as the FCA Park Heights Saints football team or Calvert Hall. That makes it hard to narrow down to just one person. I can highlight one of the first areas the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation impacted.
The very first Youth Development Park we built was on the site of the former Memorial Stadium (where the Ripkens spent much of their Orioles careers) in East Baltimore. This is a socioeconomically challenged neighborhood that needed a positive place for kids to be active. Once we built the YPD, children and community leaders immediately began enjoying the area and engaging in activities that shed light on the neighborhood. Kids are kept off the streets and focused on growing into good citizens and role models.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1- Support community nonprofits, foundations and causes. Not everybody can be a Major League Baseball player like the Ripkens, but anyone can be a major league player in life by learning and living the right principles.
2- Get your priorities right so you can help others. If you are an addict, get clean and then work to help others do the same. If you are a criminal, find change and reform, and then guide others to that same positive evolution.
3- Be an example. With the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, we run many programs to do this. Our Badges for Baseball program that I described before is an excellent example. In other programs I have been involved with, former drug dealers who are now exemplary citizens act as role models for kids in their neighborhoods. Live the life you are leading others to aspire to as well.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I define leadership in one word: trust. There are two types of leaders: those showing they can be trusted based on their experience, and those who are charismatic leaders that inspire trust through their character. Both types may come to it through different paths, but they all demonstrate leadership qualities such as reliability, integrity, giving back, and being dedicated to other people and causes bigger than themselves. Through actions instead of just words, they show that they are “in the water” with you. As a leader, I have always made sure I talk directly with everyone affected by management decisions. Literally sitting down at the table with groups and listening to them, then delivering decisions directly to them, in person if at all possible. Whether people agree with the decisions or not, I’ve found that they at least respect the way and depth in which I involved them in the process.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
1- Money should not be your priority. It’s a need that must be met, but it is not the most important need. Helping others, family, improving communities with lasting impact; these should be top priorities.
2- Be aware of the downfalls of alcohol. My father was an alcoholic and, as a young man, I said I would NEVER let that happen to me. This is why they say to never say “never.” A short time later, in college, I started to enjoy partying and drinking … a little too much. I guess I just had to learn why it wasn’t good in my life from my own personal experience. I quickly became aware of how alcohol negatively affected me and those close to me.
3- Recognize the importance of spiritual principles, as opposed to human nature. Human nature will take you in the wrong direction. Spiritual principles and putting others first will always put you in a position where you can succeed and help people. These principles can be different to different people. In my mind, it’s not about whether you eat meat on Fridays or not. Sacrifices and faith can be demonstrated in many ways. For me, this means put faith in God and be dedicated to something bigger than yourself. I knew this principle, but didn’t start exuding it until I decided to deal with my alcohol addiction. To conquer my problem, I went through the Alcoholics Anonymous program and learned how to make my faith a true power in my life. That’s why I titled my autobiography “Surrender to Win.” Surrendering to something bigger than yourself is not weakness. This type of surrender is a source of strength! Now, I’ve been sober for several decades and I feel great.
4- Be open to input before making up your mind. When I was young in my career, I had a set way of thinking. Over time, I learned to listen carefully to others and have often had my mind changed. There are countless examples. This has been imperative in my career as a business owner, politician, board member and philanthropist. It has also been essential in my marriage!
5- Address unresolved conflicts as quickly as possible. Unresolved conflicts always lead to bad things and build resentment; whether it’s between countries or in interpersonal relationships. My amazing wife, Janet, and I have been happily married for over 60 years. The secret? Resolve conflicts! No matter who is driving the conflict, if at all possible, don’t go to bed angry. At the very latest, work through it immediately in the morning.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That is an excellent question, but I might be an outlier on this one. I don’t necessarily think that way. I live for the moment. I take one day at a time, live for each moment, and dedicate myself to helping others. That has allowed me to maximize the good I bring to communities here in the Baltimore area, throughout the nation, and even in other parts of the world. The Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and our Youth Development Parks are one example (well, now 100 examples!) of daily focus and group cooperation leading to extraordinary results.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Whatever you start, you must finish.” When I was a kid, my dad taught me that lesson when he coached me in a youth baseball game. I was pitching, and toward the late innings, my arm quickly lost power and control. We went from a massive lead to me walking so many batters that we lost … by a lot! After the game, I asked my dad why he didn’t sub me out when he knew I was spent. He said, “Because when you start something, you must finish it.” That wasn’t really a great way to teach such a lesson when a person physically can’t perform any longer, but I still got the spirit of his point. That lesson has always stuck with me and helped me persevere in the face of adversity.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
It would be fascinating to talk with Queen Elizabeth II. She has had a life rich with experiences and has personally witnessed many major events in world history. Imagine the pressure she went through becoming queen of England at only 27 years of age, and how she must have grown through that. I would love to ask her about working with Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, and so many other important world leaders she engaged with over the past seven decades. “The Crown” is a wonderful show based partly on her life, but I know it would be truly captivating to hear from her directly.
How can our readers follow you or your organization on social media?
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter: @CalRipkenSrFdn
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!