William Dennis Kelley is as deserving of a movie about his life as the likes of Patch Adams or Buddy Holly. From the first day he walked into attorney Dale Illig’s office in 1978, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a three-day beard, he showed himself to be a caring, though eclectic character who reflected righteousness and generosity.
His legacy, and trust, has been directly benefiting Georgetown and surrounding communities for nearly 20 years.
Perhaps, in time, the book Mr. Illig has begun about their time together, will bring the story of this extraordinary man, and partnership, to people outside Georgetown.
The mission of the W.D. Kelley Foundation is “to acknowledge and encourage innovative leadership in the areas of education, health, and human services in the Georgetown non-profit community.” As trustee of the foundation, Dale Illig continues to be worthy of the name, as he was during Mr. Kelley’s lifetime.
“I had only been a practicing attorney for one year when Mr. Kelley walked into my office,” Dale says. “He presented me with a will contestation case that I believed we couldn’t win. He trusted me then and, over the 18 months it took to win the case, our relationship was cemented. He was not just as a client or friend but a father figure—until he died 18 years later. His only complaint during that time was that I worried too much and didn’t charge him enough.”
Mr. Kelley was the last living heir of a distinguished Swedish pioneer family. His great-grandmother, Anna Hurd Palm, came to Texas in 1853 and settled in what is now known as Palm Valley in Round Rock. The land she purchased in 1863 to bury her son, who had succumbed to pneumonia, later became the Palm Valley Lutheran Church, but she maintained a successful estate property, which passed down to later generations.
In 1978, Kelley’s aunt, Mary Palm, passed away after having been convinced by her pastor to sign a new will just 54 hours before she died. Her original will left her estate, in equal shares, to her sister Marguerite and her nephew William Kelley. The note she signed, in the presence of influential witnesses, left uncertainty as to her final wishes, so the parties put it to a jury to decide.
Dale says, “Kelley was very clear that we would not settle and, despite being up against some of Austin’s best trial attorneys, we prevailed with the jury. They determined Mary was not competent at the time she signed the second will, so he received his rightful inheritance.”
While Mr. Kelley insisted that he didn’t need money, and did not have any children of his own, he did have a love for the homestead that had been in his family for 130 years. He protested mightily when the City of Round Rock decided to build Old Settlers Park on the site, but was forced to accept their decision to condemn and take possession of the site. Payment to Kelley was $4 million and, when Dale asked him what he wanted to do with it, he said, “Why don’t you just take care of it for me?”
Still reeling a little from the confidence his friend showed, Dale helped Kelley pay some taxes and make gifts to friends, then set about investing in what would become very lucrative properties along I-35 in Georgetown. These buys were made during the S&L crisis in the early 1990s, so the purchases were a risk that paid very well as the Texas economy recovered.
Despite having and earning money from his trust, Kelley lived very simply on his pension from Carpenter’s Local Union 769, where he had spent his working years. Dale smiles to recall being friends with a millionaire who lived out of his car, or slept on his law office floor, often for weeks or months.
Dale was a very successful money manager, and at the time of Kelley’s death, the trust had grown from $2.3 million to $6.8 million.
WDKelleyFoundation.org: The objective is to help grantees achieve goals and be catalysts for change. they hope organizations served can leverage funding so they do not become dependent on it and may be self-sustaining in the future.
After Mr. Kelley’s death, Dale recognized the immense responsibility, and challenges, of giving away money. He converted the trust to a foundation and recruited trusted community members to form a board. Today, the foundation continues to thrive, with the help of his son Carl as Executive Director, board members Thomas Baird and Rev. Jim Turley, and Administrative Assistant Jeannie Coffman.
Since 2001, the Foundation has contributed nearly $7 million to local groups, and strives to donate between $400-500,000 annually. “In the beginning,” Carl says, “we focused on small organizations that could benefit from the support because we recognized not everyone has resources for long applications and processes. We are also atypical in that we do not have an annual plan, or an open-door policy. When we hear about good opportunities, we invite individuals and organizations to submit information to us for review.”
Dale adds, “We like to focus on education, jobs, and good leaders. Kelley was doted on by his aunts, who emphasized his own education, and he believed a job is the greatest gift you can give a person. I also believe when you find a great leader, whatever you give them, they’ll do the right thing with it.”
Evidence of this is the recently established W.D. Kelley Award for Leadership, which Carl and Dale agree has provided a lot of fulfillment from and pride in recipients Eric Lashley, Erin Kiltz, Tamara Huggins, and Nancy Krenek.
This year, among others, the Foundation is providing $75,000 for scholarships at Temple College in Taylor and Hutto. Funds will help high school students who want to earn dual credit but cannot afford the tuition cost of Austin Community College. An additional $75,000 will be donated to the college to renovate existing space into a new physics lab.
Dale says, “What Kelley gave me was a lot more important than just taking care of his money and his legal problems. No one had ever given me such absolute trust and confidence, from the day he met me until the day he died. This was Kelley’s greatest gift.”