By Ray O’Hanlon
Denis Kelleher, whose rise from cash strapped immigrant to Wall Street fame was an American Dream story personified, has died aged 80.
Kelleher died on Friday, November 22 at his home on Staten Island surrounded by his family.
Mr. Kelleher, the son of a shoemaker who began his life in the tiny County Kerry village of Gneeveguilla, came to the United States in 1958.
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He would serve his newly adopted country in the U.S. Army
In 2005, he led the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the 244th, as its grand marshal.
The day after he arrived in New York, Kelleher interviewed with Merrill Lynch and started as a messenger, or runner, for the brokerage house.
Through the decades he rose to found his own financial services company, Wall Street Access, a money management and stock brokerage firm and member of the New York Stock Exchange.
Stated a Staten Island Live website report: “During his lifetime Kelleher was a quiet benefactor to many. A graduate of St. John’s University, he was chairman of the board of St. John’s and was key to funding the $5.4 million Kelleher Center on the Staten Island campus atop Grymes Hill.
“He helped fund the education of hundreds of Catholic school children through the Inner City Scholarship Fund of the New York Archdiocese, and lent his time, financial support and expertise to numerous community and charitable organizations.”
When he was invested as grand marshal of the parade in 2005, and as the Echo reported at the time, “Kelleher, in an eloquent acceptance speech, lauded the March 17 parade as being one of the city’s most festive and anticipated annual celebrations. He, in turn, was praised from a dais that included the outgoing grand marshal, Tommy Gleason, and Cardinal Edward Egan, who led the 2002 parade up Fifth Avenue.
“Kelleher was described by Irish Consul General Eugene Hutchinson as an exceptional grand marshal, a man who combined business acumen, high integrity and a moral compass.”
In a profile that same year, the Echo described Kelleher’s life story as “the American dream writ large.”
Stated the profile: “He can’t be president because he wasn’t born here. But he can be a Wall Street chief executive, and he can be grand marshal of the nation’s largest celebration of Irish American heritage.
“And that will do just fine for a man who says that you should never be afraid to dream big, and then reach out boldly to realize your dream.”
Said Kelleher of his standout day on Fifth Avenue: “Being grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City really does stand for something very significant, especially when you think in terms of over 40 million Irish Americans,”
“You can dream, but you have to dream big, work hard and learn constantly. But this is beyond even my wildest dreams,” Kelleher said of his parade-leading assignment.
Kelleher had founded Wall Street Access, what he described as a “diversified financial services company,” in 1981. It succeeded an earlier company, Wall Street Clearing.
Wall Street Access conducted research for clients and managed large private portfolios and 401Ks.
The road to Wall Street had started in a local national school, and later in St. Brendan’s secondary school in Killarney. The boyhood Kelleher had hungrily absorbed knowledge and developed a thirst for learning that lasted all his life.
“I had a mathematics teacher in St. Brendan’s named MacCurtain. He brought great enthusiasm to the class and he loved to talk to us about stocks and bonds, yields and compound interest. He would talk about Wall Street and I was fascinated. And here I am,” he said in the 2005 profile.
“I was a dreamer, yes, but also an ideas person. I believe in getting the best people and leaving them to do the best they can do.”
Kelleher had no doubt that he was a fortunate man. His move to the U.S., however, was tinged with sadness. He was just 18 and his father had died not long before. The young man with the big dreams boarded a plane for New York.
It landed along the way at Gander in Newfoundland. The next time Kelleher would set foot on that Canadian isle would be Sept. 11, 2001.
He had been at a wedding in Europe and was late in getting back. As a result, a meeting he was supposed to attend that day in Seven World Trade Center was postponed.
“It was a day that changed the world,” Kelleher said. His own family, as so many did, lost friends in the World Trade Center.
Three and a half years after that saddest of days, Kelleher would remember them as he led a parade that was, appropriately, dedicated to the United States of America.
Now, fourteen years later and after Kelleher’s passing, the parade remembered its 2005 leader.
Said the parade board of directors in a statement: “It is with deep sadness we announce the passing of Denis P. Kelleher, Grand Marshal of the 2005 Parade.
“Dennis epitomized the true spirit of a St. Patrick’s Day Parade Grand Marshal, a family man, community leader, and avid supporter of a wide variety of worthy causes. He was a class act, said Sean Lane, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Board.
Added the statement: “With more than 40 years of experience in the securities industry, Mr. Kelleher received many honors for his steady successes, including recognition by Irish America magazine as one of the Top 100 Irish American business leaders on Wall Street.
“He helped fund the education of hundreds of Catholic school children through the Inner-City Scholarship Fund of the New York Archdiocese, and lent his time, financial support and expertise to numerous community and charitable organizations. He, along with other Irish Americans, worked quietly behind the scenes to advance political stability and peace in Northern Ireland.
“Denis Kelleher exemplified the true immigrant success story. He was first and foremost a proud Kerryman, a proud son of Ireland, and a proud New Yorker. We will miss Denis and thank him for his 35 years of dedicated service on the parade board of Directors. He supported the parade all the way” said Hilary Beirne, chairman of the St. Patrick’s Day Foundation.
“We extend our sincere condolences to his wife Carol and family at this difficult time.”
Former Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, paid tribute to Mr. Kelleher’s work on behalf of peace in Northern Ireland.
Said Adams in part in a statement:”I learnt tonight of the death of Denis Kelleher with great regret, a man who personified the best of Irish America.His was the Irish American story of huge financial success gained through intelligence, ability and hard work.
“He was very proud of his republican ancestry and remained true to the ideal of a united Ireland through peaceful means.
“He was a strong supporter of the peace process and he and I met to discuss its progress. He was the epitome also of that great Irish American spirit of philanthropy, quietly supporting charitable causes both in America and Ireland.
“My deepest sympathy to his wife Carol, his family and his many friends.”
Mr. Kelleher’s son, Sean, described his father as a larger-than-life figure who had touched the lives of many through his business success and commitment to giving back to the community.
“He embodied the American entrepreneurial spirit, bringing integrity, dedication, and experience to work every day to drive our success. Our family will miss him dearly and commit ourselves to carrying out on the extraordinary legacy and values he leave behind.”
Mr. Kelleher, a winner of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, is survived by his wife, the former Carol Cieslewicz, daughter Colleen and her husband Dr. Robert Sorrentino, son Denis and his wife Rachel, son Sean and his wife Wendy, and eight grandchildren: Bobby, Maggie, Jack, Caroline, Dylan, Zoe, Denis and Alex.
Visitation is set for Casey Funeral Home, 350 Slosson Avenue, Staten Island, on Saturday, November 30, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday, December 1, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A Mass of Christian Burial will take place at St. Ann’s Church, 101 Cromwell Avenue, Staten Island, on Monday, December 2, at 12 noon. Interment will follow at Moravian Cemetery.
Memorial donations may be mailed to the New World Preparatory Charter School, 26 Sharpe Avenue, Staten Island, New York, 10302.