The public relations world lost one of its most enthusiastic and honest champions last week with the passing of Kathleen Kelly, Public Relations Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida.
I was introduced to Kathleen many years ago by the late Betsy Plank, who described Kathleen as one of the all-time great mentors in the public relations profession. Over the next three decades, I looked forward to our periodic conversations–one of which encouraged me to teach. Every year, I looked forward to seeing her a Page and PRSA conferences and enjoyed spending time with her during visits to the University of Florida.
Besides being an active member of the Arthur W. Page Society, Kathleen served as a trustee of the Institute for Public Relations and was a legend within actively involved with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). In addition to being a PRSA Fellow, she received three of the highest awards in public relations teaching and research: the 2004 Outstanding Educator Award from PRSA, the 1999 Jackson and Wagner Behavioral Science Prize from the PRSA Foundation, and the 1995 Pathfinder Award in recognition of lifetime achievement in public relations research from the Institute for Public Relations.
I am saddened and heartbroken to hear the news that my beloved and deeply respected mentor, former colleague, and friend, Dr. Kathleen Kelly, passed away on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.
I had been planning on visiting Kathleen early in the summer before traveling abroad for my sabbatical. We had planned on bringing my three-year old daughter, Aria, over to Kathleen’s beach house in St. Augustine since 2019. Unfortunately, that plan fell through last summer due to the pandemic. Now, I will never have the chance. I am saddened that Aria will never get the chance to say “Thank you, Grandma Kathleen” in person for her thoughtful Christmas gifts and for all her care and love. I mourn for these unrealized moments of joy.
I last spent time with Kathleen on March 12, 2019. She was wheelchair-bound but still stopped by to see Aria and say goodbye before she moved permanently to St. Augustine for her retirement. We dined at Embers in Gainesville along with Kathleen’s husband George; we had so much fun, talking about work, family, her retirement, and their beautiful love story. I remember when Kathleen went to the restroom, I asked George their secret for such a happy marriage (married for 60 years!). He replied, “You know, she is Kathleen. She is just amazing…and, “Kathleen is always right!” Then we both laughed!
Kathleen was a legend. Her authentic character, kindness, charisma, wisdom, elegance, boldness, sense of humor, genuine passion for what she did, deep care for the profession… made her truly one of a kind. She’s someone whom I held in highest regard, dearly to my heart, and whom I want to be someday (though I know no one can be Kathleen). She was a master teacher, an extraordinary scholar, and an internationally recognized thought leader. She was an amazing human being with a kind and most generous heart. She made such a huge and profound impact on the public relations profession and thousands of students and mentees’ lives, including mine.
Without Kathleen, I wouldn’t be where I am today. She was the search committee chair who recommended my hire to UF six years ago and served as my mentor thereafter. She was by my side for every big moment of my career and life ever since—when I was inducted to Page Up of the Arthur W. Page Society, when I received tenure and promotion, when I bought a home, and when my daughter was born. Kathleen was always guiding me, supporting me, and encouraging me.
Kathleen inspired me to do research that matters for the profession and always look for the broader impact of my work in the community. She encouraged me to aim high, chase my passion, trust my domain expertise, and be proud of my ambition. She taught me how to navigate work and life, prioritize obligations, and made me believe that it’s possible to beautifully balance the responsibilities of being a dedicated mother, wife, and an enthusiastic career woman. She lived as a remarkable role model for me and many by combining scholarship, leadership, passion, and purpose.
I was so blessed to have had Kathleen as my dear mentor, colleague and friend. I will treasure her memory, always, and hope to carry on her legacy. – Rita Linjuan Men, Ph.D., University of Florida
Other friends of Kathleen shared their thoughts about this remarkable woman in a blog post by Page President Roger Bolton, who cited her many contributions to the Arthur W. Page Society. “Kathleen’s good-natured sense of humor and respect for others made her a particularly valued colleague and friend,” Roger added.
Here are a few other comments from colleagues and friends:
Kathleen was a delight to be with. I had the privilege of being invited by her to the campus to meet with students. I was very impressed by her knowledge and the urgency she expressed about the essential role public relations plays in any well-managed organization. – Bill Nielsen, formerly of Johnson & Johnson
My wife, Jan, and I had many fun times with Kathleen and George at Page events, at IPR and at the University of Florida over the past 30 years. Kathleen was a good person; she had a sweet heart, a sharp mind and a classy style. Colleagues will remember her as accomplished researcher and a wonderful teacher who was loved by her students and colleagues alike. She will be missed. – Bob Grupp, Former CCO and now teaching at University of Florida
Kathy was a force in nonprofit public relations. Her research was groundbreaking and her mentorship of many academics and professionals helped advance the study of public relations and corporate communication. As chair of the University of Florida’s Department of Public Relations in the College of Journalism and Communications (the largest public relations academic department in the U.S.), she led an innovative program that produced quality education and research. – Don Stacks, Ph.D., University of Miami
Kathleen was one of the nation’s most respected public relations educators. She was a leading authority on the concept of fundraising, and played a major role in developing teaching and research about the not-for-profit aspects of our industry. In addition to teaching at the University of Florida (and prior to that at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette), she also served several years as chair of Florida’s public relations department, widely recognized as one of the nation’s best. – Don Wright, Ph.D., Boston University
Kathleen Kelly (Kathy) represented the best of the Maryland scholarly tradition in public relations that was started by James E. Grunig. She went on to extend excellence theory to her own areas of scholarship, primarily fundraising, and to educate students at the University to Louisiana at Lafayette and later to develop doctoral students at one of the leading public relations programs in the world at the University of Florida. Her tradition will carry on that lineage of scholarly research with myriad practical applications. Kathy could always be counted on for a sunny attitude, a bright dress, and an even brighter smile. She was “the” source for anything fundraising-related, a force in the Maryland School of theory, and will be sorely missed as mentor, professor, scholar, and friend. – Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., University of South Carolina
The UF community is indeed deeply saddened, but her impact extends far beyond this institution or even the academic world itself. When I arrived at UF in 2017, Kathleen was still a very important and revered member of the faculty, but also dealing with some health challenges, so I knew her more from our time together on the IPR board and from her overall leadership and renown. She combined scholarship, leadership, authenticity and purpose in a rare way. This is a big loss for the PR profession, where those traits are more important than ever. – Pat Ford, former agency executive, Plank Center trustee and now teaching at University of Florida