Derry native who emigrated to Canada Jimmy Kelly was ‘a great wit and always there for you’

Son of Derry native who emigrated to Canada speaks of his father’s love for his native city and his many achievements here and in his adopted home.

By His son Declan
Sunday, 23rd January 2022, 10:39 am
Updated Sunday, 23rd January 2022, 10:43 am
Jimmy with grandson Leo Seamus, wearing their Derry City FC colours with pride.
Jimmy with grandson Leo Seamus, wearing their Derry City FC colours with pride.

It is with profound sadness that the Kelly family announces the passing of their rock and guiding light, James (Jimmy in Ireland; Jim in Canada), at Stratford General Hospital following a recent lung cancer diagnosis.

Beloved husband of Marlene (Kucher) and father of Declan (Claudie Brisebois), and “proud as punch” grandfather of Leo Séamus. Son of Charlie and Rosie (McConway) Kelly of Derry, Ireland, he was the proud older brother of: Ann (Chris) Smith of Eastbourne, E. Sussex; Rosemary (Lin) Keegan of Leixlip, Co. Kildare; Richard (Jitske) of Wellington, Ontario; Adrian of London; Noel of Park, Co. Derry; Raymond of Sappagh, Co. Donegal; Catherine (Joe) Fisher and John, both of Derry. He was also a fond uncle of more than 20 nieces and nephews from three generations of the Kelly and McGovern families, spread across four continents and multiple countries. He was predeceased by his first wife May (McGovern) in 1990 and an older brother William, who died in infancy.

A bright and mechanically inclined student, Jimmy left school at 15 to take a job in a factory to help support the growing family – by then nine living in a two-bedroom house. He immediately regretted leaving school and began working toward his secondary school equivalency during evening classes at Derry’s Strand Road Technical College. While completing his studies, he began volunteering on weekends at community and healthcare organizations. Education and helping those less fortunate became two main themes throughout his life.

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Jimmy with his wife Marlene, daughter-in-law Claudie, son Declan and grandson Leo Seamus.

Completing his City & Guilds Diploma at the Strand Tech enabled him to qualify for a tool-and-die making apprenticeship with Birmingham Sound Reproducers (BSR). He spent seven enjoyable years in England’s West Midlands, where he became a fan of Aston Villa FC.

Upon returning to Derry in the mid-1960s, Jimmy joined civil rights marches and protests that highlighted the limited opportunities – even for certified tradespeople and university graduates – available to the nationalist population, while continuing to volunteer at the city’s Altnagelvin and Gransha hospitals.

In late 1966, Jimmy emigrated to Canada after a close friend from Derry emigrated to the U.S. and was drafted for service in the Vietnam War. Jimmy arrived on a Thursday and began work as a tool-and-die maker the following Monday in Hamilton’s booming industrial sector. While he couldn’t have known then that he would never want for work again, he admitted years later to always keeping enough funds in his bank account for the return flight to Ireland – about $200 at the time – “in case things didn’t pan out.”

He would be the first to say life more than panned out for him in Canada. Shortly after he met May in 1969, when they were both part of the Irish communities of Hamilton and Toronto, he completed his Bachelor of Education at the Ontario College of Education. He began teaching at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in 1970, for what he assumed would be a one-year term before he returned to Toronto.

Jimmy Kelly, right, with his wife Marlene and former schoolmate Phil Coulter.

But Stratford’s mix of people, industry, agriculture, arts and sports provided the perfect environment for him to combine his love of technology and problem-solving with helping young people build a better life for themselves. Over the next three decades, Jim helped hundreds of students develop the skills and self-agency that set them on a path to successful careers in their chosen field. He helped develop a co-operative education program that became a model for many others across Ontario, decades before “experiential learning” was a formal concept. But Jim wasn’t one for accolades or recognition. He simply wanted to connect as many students as possible with the opportunities that were best for them. And whether it was a student who went on to run a large multi-national firm or one who overcame literacy challenges to secure a job stocking shelves in a grocery store, Jim was immensely proud of every student who made the most of an opportunity.

In addition to coaching soccer teams at Northwestern – including winning the school’s first Huron-Perth championship in 1982 – Jim also volunteered extensively in many community service roles in Stratford and surrounding area. As early as the 1970s, he and close friend and former Stratford Mayor Ted Blowes led a community group that organized a landfill diversion program to ship used glass to a recycling facility. Jim was a devoted member of St. Joseph’s Church, where he was a key volunteer of the parish chapter of the Community Kitchen drop-in meal program. He was also a long-time member of the Knights of Columbus and former Grand Knight and Faithful Navigator of Stratford’s Kilroy Council.

Upon retiring from Northwestern as Director of Technology in 1998, Jim became an enthusiastic wood carver. His life-like carvings of Canadian wildlife won top awards at national and international carving shows in Canada and the U.S. He completed his final carving in September 2020, when he mentored his grandson Leo while finishing the habitat for a grey wolf. Ever the teacher, Jim had Leo research the Niagara Escarpment to determine the appropriate rock formation and vegetation to include, before showing him the carving and painting techniques to reproduce it at scale.

Jim considered himself incredibly fortunate to have travelled throughout North America, Europe and Australia. He and Marlene enjoyed many trips to the Caribbean, Florida, Ireland and Nova Scotia. On a cruise around Saint Martin and Curacao in 2009, they were pleasantly surprised to discover the musical artist on the ship was Jim’s former schoolmate, the renowned Phil Coulter. After reconnecting at one of Phil’s performances, Phil insisted Jim and Marlene be his guests at a private reception with the captain on the final evening of the cruise. For a lad who was so proud of his humble Westland Avenue roots, it was truly an honour to be sailing the high seas as a guest of the composer of the iconic ode to Derry, The Town I Loved So Well.

The late Jimmy Kelly.

Family and friends will remember Jim as a great wit, a kind and caring soul and someone who was always there for you whatever the hour, whatever the need. He greeted his recent cancer diagnosis with extreme grace and perspective by reflecting on his life’s work in teaching. “You have to go into it with hope,” he said. “That’s all we tried to do with the kids at the school, to send them out into the world with hope.”

The family would like to thank all his caregivers at Stratford General Hospital for their attentive and compassionate care, especially the nursing teams in the Medicine and Telemetry units, nurses Cheryl, Brandi and Chloe, and Drs., Lussier, Priyadamkol and Walji, along with family physician Dr. Irvine. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations to the Canadian Cancer Society, the Irish Cancer Society or charity of one’s choice – or to do as Jim did in the run-up to every Christmas and donate new toys to the Salvation Army or House of Blessing.

Cremation will follow a funeral mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Stratford.