Retired Alpine Judge living a life of gratitude |

Retired Alpine Judge living a life of gratitude

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau
Retired Judge Tom Kelly holding his wedding picture
Lisa Gavon |

Her family was from the south, and they worried about her marrying a “Yank.” Her older brother, then her mother, gave her suitor, Tom Kelly, a thorough inspection. Harriet was eventually given the go-ahead to marry the young man who had been born in New York. It turned out to be a great decision — when Harriet Kelly passed away last October, she and her husband Tom had been married 50 years.

A retired Alpine County Judge, Kelly is still amazed and grateful for the wonderful things that have happened — and continue to happen — in his life. He had quit high school, and at his mother’s suggestion, visited relatives in Kerry County, Ireland. It was a defining time for him, the first of many trips that offered him clarity and vision.

He completed his high school degree when he returned. He had played violin since he was 7 years-old, just one of his many talents, and in these years he was privileged to perform in the orchestra at many notable locations, including Carnegie Hall.

Both Tom and Harriet graduated from St. John’s University in New York City. Tom received his bachelor of business administration, then continued his studies and received his law degree in 1959. He practiced in the New York City District Attorney’s office for seven years. Harriet received her teaching credential and went on to become a stewardess with Eastern Airlines. They met after they both graduated at a alumni dance.

While working for Eastern, Harriet got to know the Von Trapp family, whom “The Sound of Music” movie was based on. Tom asked Harriet to marry him after midnight mass in Vermont, where the original Maria and the Von Trapp children sang. Under a star-filled night they agreed to share their lives, and it was here that their wonderful journey began.

After the wedding they moved to Newport Beach, Calif. It was Tom’s idea — he is an adventurous soul and likes being near the ocean. Their first son Tommy was born there. He got a job as directing attorney with Napa County Legal Assistance Agency, and their second daughter, Lynne, was born in Napa.

Tom moved on to the position of assistant district attorney in South Lake Tahoe and also started his own practice from 1968 to 1971. Sons Sean and Danny and daughter Carol were born in Tahoe.

Tom and Harriet loved having children. Harriet wanted to go to Calcutta and adopt from Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Mercy. The details could not quite be worked out, so they decided to try and help by taking in foster children. Son Sean said the eight foster children they welcomed into their home were treated as brothers and sisters, and it was always very sad to see them leave.

The Kelly family moved to Alpine County in 1971 when Tom was hired as district attorney and county counsel. Tom was appointed district court judge from 1976 to 1989 and then municipal court judge for the following nine years. During this time he also worked as a traveling judge throughout the state, often away for weeks at a time. He served as Alpine County Superior Court Judge in his last two years before retirement.

The family was fortunate to be able to adopt Josh and make him a permanent part of the family while in Alpine County. It is their children who have brought them the most happiness. Currently there are 16 grandchildren. Once their six were grown, Harriet took a job working at the Markleeville Post Office. Her gentle nature and warmth shone there, and she made people feel welcome each time they stopped to get their mail. She worked with Mina Woods, who became her life-long friend.

Kelly feels that good work was done within the system in those years. It was hard for him to watch the kind of struggles people went through and the suffering that caused. In his years as judge he used both wisdom and compassion in the service of justice. Even though he was born in a big city, Alpine County has become his real home, and he has no plans to ever leave.

Most people do not truly appreciate their destiny, but Kelly is an exception. He has been given many gifts and so much joy. Together with Harriet, he forged a life full of daily thankfulness, and created a foundation of faith, resilience and love for his family.