Tribute to William Russell Kelly

Russell Kelly

Remembering a Pioneer

"How would I like to be remembered? I just want to be remembered like my father. I want to be remembered as a pioneer."

William Russell Kelly, founder of Kelly Services, Inc. and creator of the modern temporary help industry, came by his pioneering spirit in the most direct way possible. Russ inherited it from his father. As the New York Times put it in a 1963 article, Russ's father, James Watson Kelly, was "one of the great oil pioneers at the turn of the century, who gained and lost fortunes in France, Spain, South America, Canada and the United States."

Much of Russ's boyhood was spent on a 150-acre site adjacent to the Koksilah River on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. While the senior Kelly traveled the world, his children enjoyed horses and the outdoor life.

Later the family home was an estate in France, but Russ remained in the U.S., where he graduated from the Gulfcoast Military Academy at Gulfport, Mississippi.

"I was the smallest kid in school," said Russ. "Didn't grow tall until I was in college. But I made sergeant. Holding that Enfield rifle on my shoulder in the Sunday parade, leading three or four companies of boys. That makes you proud."

Getting an early start, Russ began college in 1922 at the age of 16, at Vanderbilt University. At his father's suggestion, he transferred to the University of Pittsburgh a year later because the school offered a program in oil management. He studied business administration, but with the Jazz Age in full swing, Sigma Chi fraternity life received more of young Russ's attention than did his books. A stern letter from his father -- half a world away on an oil project -- made an impression he never forgot. The letter closed with a reminder that hard work was the only path to success.

Kelly's parents

Russ took the words to heart. But soon after, his father suffered a stroke, and the family fortune declined. Russ would be working hard, but not in college. In 1926, in his senior year, Russ left the university to work as a Hudson automobile salesman in Pittsburgh. In 1928, while the family was living in Buffalo, New York, his father suffered a second -- and fatal -- stroke. No longer just supporting himself, Russ Kelly became a major contributor to his family, which included his mother, three sisters and three brothers.

Seeking an income that was steadier than selling automobiles, Kelly visited Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he was introduced to the Assistant Treasurer of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, the A&P.

He was hired on the condition that he work extra hours on his own time, learning the food business and the techniques of auditing. Part of the appeal for Russ was that the A&P accounting office was brand new and utilized the latest business systems and procedures.

William Russell Kelly, founder of the modern temporary help industry, Chairman and founder of Kelly Services, Inc., died at his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on January 3, 1998. He was 92.

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