Irish America lost a beloved one of our own in late November with the passing of Denis Kelleher, a Kerry-born powerhouse of a businessman. Over the course of his 80 years, Kelleher built two financial services firms from the ground up, raised a close-knit family of three with his wife Carol, and held fast to his commitment to helping people who needed it. especially immigrants like himself.
He was born to Michael and Abbey Kelleher in Gneeveguilla, Rathmore in 1939. Both parents were hardworking individuals who encouraged and inspired by example. Abbey read voraciously, and passionately impressed upon her son the importance of higher education and the doors it would open for him. When Michael, a shoemaker by trade, couldn’t get leather to work with during WWII, he relocated to England to run a factory, supporting the family he had to leave with the money he sent home every two weeks. “Times were very tough back then, Ireland was a third-world country,” Denis remembered in a 2011 interview with Irish America. “But we got through it because my dad was a great man.” Michael died when Denis was just 15.
Determined to support his widowed mother to the best of his ability, Denis threw himself into his schoolwork at St. Brendan’s boarding school in Killarney. He flourished in math and would discuss the stock exchange regularly with his teacher, expanding on his studies with an investment in Time magazine for its financial reports. After graduating, he quickly realized the lack of opportunity at home and turned his sights west, emigrating to New York at the age of 18, and arriving with $1.50 to his name.
With the help of a fellow immigrant uncle, Denis settled in the Bronx and secured a job at Merrill Lynch as a messenger. He moved up the ranks quickly, yet his sense of personal responsibility remained firmly intact, proven when he left the company for two years to serve in the army of his newly adopted home. After completing his service, he went back to work, attending school at night until he obtained his degree in marketing and finance in 1965. He and Carol, whom he met on a blind date, married in 1966 and settled in Staten Island, N.Y. They had three children: Denis, Sean, and Colleen.
At a dizzying speed Denis worked his way up the corporate ladder, eventually leaving Merrill Lynch to make a name for himself, launching of Wall Street Access in 1981.
Yet he never took his success for granted, nor forgot where he came from. He supported countless foundations, including the Staten Island Foundation, the New York Archdiocese’s Inner-City Scholarship Fund, and the Good Deeds Foundation, which he started with Carol. Project Hospitality’s CEO, Rev. Terry Troia, said of him, “His gift was his ability to see his own suffering in his youth, his vulnerability and his desire to become rooted in the American experience, in other immigrants’ lives…to experience the American dream and to give back significantly to this new country he called home.”
Perhaps Denis himself summed up a meaningful life best in his interview upon being inducted into Irish America’s Hall of Fame: “Dream big, work hard, learn constantly and have fun while doing so.”
“Denis was a quiet man man who listened …. we will not meet his like again.” – Patricia Co-Founder, Editor and Chief of Irish America Magazine
“An incredible immigrant success who made it big on Wall Street but who remained rooted in faith, family, and friendship, the touchstones of his life. County Kerry has lost one of its proudest sons and America has lost a man who took to heart the American motto to dream big and give back.” – Niall O’Dowd Founding Publisher of Irish America magazine.