By MARY ANN O’TOOLE HOLLEY
Florissant, MO – The area Labor Movement has lost one of its strongest advocates. Dick Kellett, a man who was not only well-respected in the Labor community, but loved by most people whose lives he touched, passed away Sunday, Feb. 16. He was 85.
Mr. Kellett proudly served his country in the United States Army during the Korean War. He was a 66-year pipefitter member and business agent of Local 562, and retired in 2015 as president of North County Labor Legislative Club –the longest-running, most effective labor club in the state.
Some knew Mr. Kellett from his leadership as a business agent of Local 562. Others knew him through his support with political campaigns and civic endeavors as a founding member and the long-time president of the North County Labor Club.
Many others knew him through his religious activities in the Daily World Missionaries, White House Retreats or as an usher at St. Rose Catholic Church. Some may have met him only once, but never forgot the experience.
A long-time resident of Florissant, Mr. Kellet was proud to talk about the early days in Florissant, when roads were all brand new and tract homes of the 1950s drew young blue-collar workers to the area. He would often talk about how every man on his block held a union card, and how they’d get together for picnics because of their common Labor interests. The gatherings sparked as a natural precursor to the Labor Club concept.
Mr. Kellett often said his love of Labor and politics was born with the support of the Brothers of Mary, who taught him at DeAndreis High School. He talked about how they not only taught English, math and other subjects, they shared with their students the importance of being involved in Labor and politics.
He believed more teachers should talk about these subjects with their students.
“One of the Brothers gathered us together and said, ‘You young Irish kids need to get involved,” Mr. Kellett would say. “Five of my classmates went on to become leaders of Labor Unions or held other high offices in the city.”
Among Mr. Kellett’s classmates were John Flynn, former business manager of Bricklayers Local 1, who worked his way up to become president of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers International Union; James Conway and Vincent Schoemehl, Jr., who went on to become mayors; and several others, who found success in the Labor community.
VOICE OF LABOR IN POLITICS
Mr. Kellett was a polished, honest gentleman whose kindness was evident, and whose political acumen developed the North County Labor Club into one of the most powerful and successful local community Labor organizations in the country.
Kellett’s drive and determination to get out the vote and bring positive change for working men and women brought in more than $1.2 million from fundraisers, raffles and donations over the years. Hundreds of elected officials owe their seats to the support of North County Labor Club members who beat the pavement going door-to-door campaigning, put support signs on their lawns and talked to their friends and neighbors about the importance and reasons for voting for a particular candidate.
Mr. Kellett’s work didn’t stop at the ballot box, he was also a trusted advisor, working behind the scenes to protect the interests of working men and women and better the community, said former Florissant Mayor Tom Schneider.
“He worked hard to get the Florissant Police Station done as a 100 percent union job,” said Schneider, who was mayor at the time. “He’s done so much for Labor and politics, and he’s done a lot of community work. He was an all-around good citizen.”
LEADING THE WAY FOR LABOR’S VOICE IN POLITICS
Fred Searcy, a business agent with the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, became president of the North County Labor in 2018, just a few years after Mr. Kellett retired as Club president.
“Dick and some other guys (Dave ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, Butch Hepburn, Mike Walsh and Dick Sullivan) were all there in the beginning,” Searcy said. “They worked out the bylaws and started up in a storefront donated by Handyman Hardware.
“Without the leadership they showed us, Labor would be in a pretty bad situation now,” Searcy said. “Mr. Kellett and others laid down the groundwork, showing how being union and being united could allow us to be effective in politics. Without him and others, the clubs would not exist.
“North County Labor Club was the beginning of political power in our Labor community,” Searcy said. “Today, there are 13 Labor clubs in the region and there is no place else that has the kind of support they have. All the other Labor clubs in the area are ‘children’ of the North County Labor Club. Everything grew from there.
“Whether you called him Mr. Kellett or Dick everyone knew who he was,” Searcy said. “Even though he was retired he was still a strong advocate for Labor. He never missed a union meeting; never missed a Labor Club meeting. He was about what he preached, and he knew how to maneuver the political waters.”
‘HE ALWAYS HAD WORKING PEOPLE IN MIND’
“If you were running for dog catcher all the way up to state rep. and you wanted the support of Labor, you went through Dick Kellett and the North County Labor Club,” said Pat White, president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council.
White said no one in the Labor Movement had done more to establish Labor’s voice and promote the interests of working men and women in local politics.
“He always had working people in mind. I think that will be the biggest loss,” White said. “He was such a good mentor, not only to me but to many others. He started the Labor Club concept. Other unions in other areas tried to emulate it, but couldn’t get it going. We’ve been doing it 30-plus years, and it all started with Dick.”
Brother Kellett was a true gentleman, White said.
Whenever he saw him, White said, Brother Kellett would always take time to ask about White’s wife, Maggie. “He always remembered her name when he saw her, and his kids are the same way.
“When you talk about a Labor family, the Kelletts are the first family that comes to mind,” White said. “He went to his Local 562 union meeting days before he died. For sure, we will miss him.”
A CHAMPION OF LABOR
John Stiffler, secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council said Mr. Kellett devoted his entire career to helping working men and women have better lives.
“He was humble and worked mostly behind the scenes because it was the right thing to do for the Labor Movement,” Stiffler said. “I believe our Labor Movement knows and appreciates the work Dick Kellett and the others who formed the Labor Club did, helping blaze the trail for Labor Leaders today.
“He was a wonderful man,” Stiffler said. “He never sought recognition, and mostly worked behind the scenes because it was the right thing to do. He was a champion of Labor, for sure.”
‘FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS’
Current Florissant Mayor Tim Lowery said there were so many praises he could attribute to Mr. Kellett, that it would be impossible to list them all.
“He did everything for all the right reasons. He fought for the right things. I admired him,” Lowery said. “He was a dear friend of our family. I just can’t remember a time when I didn’t take his phone call. He loved St. Louis County, loved the city of Florissant. I can’t say how much I admired him. The number of people he helped in his 85 years can’t be measured. My father, former Florissant Mayor Bob Lowery, passed away shortly before I started my campaign for mayor. Dick helped me and mentored me through my entire election process.
“He will be dearly missed by the entire Labor community and many, many people in the political world,” Lowery said. “You could tell by his funeral and the number of people that attended. He was a great man and it’s a great loss to the entire community.
“He was the kindest man you’d ever meet, but he was shrewd when he wanted to be, and you didn’t want to cross him,” Lowery said. “He had high moral standards, and could certainly get things done. We lost a great man.”
LOVE OF FAMILY AND HIS UNION, PLUMBERS & PIPEFITTERS LOCAL 562
John O’Mara, president of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, said the union local had lost a special member in Mr. Kellett.
“Dick, a retired business representative and 66-year member, may have left this world on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, but his legacy will live on forever,” O’Mara said. “He was so proud to be a member of Local 562. Dick’s demeanor and his ability to build and maintain relationships was his biggest asset. He made sure that our Local was always headed in the right direction. The countless hours he spent making sure those around him were taken care of was priceless. Dick’s commitment to Local 562 and his true family values rubbed off on all of us.”
In addition to helping others and being a huge asset to Local 562, the most cherished part of Mr. Kellett’s life was his family, O’Mara said. He loved nothing more than to be with his wife, Kathleen, and the “Kellett Clan,” he said.
“Local 562 would like to say thank you to Dick Kellett for taking the time to make our lives better as Local 562 members. Your wisdom and sound advice will truly be missed,” O’Mara said.
‘A CHAMP FOR WORKING PEOPLE’
State Senator Gina Walsh (D-Bellefontaine Neighbors), a Heat & Frost Insulators Local 1 retiree and deputy director of the international union’s Labor Management and Cooperative Trust (LMCT), is part of the extended Kellett family. Her brother, Tim Rone, is married to Mary Kellett.
Walsh said Mr. Kellett and sons, John and Dick, Jr., were on the job the first time she worked by herself as an insulator, working on the old Barnes Queeny Towers project, and often ran into each other on the jobsite.
“On the job, he was a little gruff until you got to know him,” Gina recalled. “He was just so genuine, and he didn’t have a problem telling you if you were wrong.
“There was never a better champ for working people. I can’t tell you what his phone number is, but somehow, I always knew it was him calling me. He would always call and was always encouraging me for things, and he’d tell me ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
“Dick was always encouraging people that worked in the Labor community to follow their heart, and do the right thing. That would impress me that he would take the time to call, and he was always so humble. He was just a good guy. When he asked you how things were going, you knew he wanted to know.”
Two days before he died, Mr. Kellett was at his usual spot, holding court at Rookies Bar & Grill in Florissant, so she headed over to say hello.
“That was Dick and Kathleen’s routine,” she said. “Every Thursday, everyone knew they’d be there. And any of the kids or friends nearby would join in the gathering.”
Mr. Kellett’s wife, Kathleen, recently struggled and survived cancer with Dick by her side, encouraging her at every turn. His large family was close, and his seven children learned by their father’s example.
“Seven kids!” people would say, and Mr. Kellett would smile broadly and reply, “I think she likes me.”
Walsh said she saw Mr. Kellett in many different ways, but most importantly in the amazing relationship he had with his grandkids.
“I got to watch him interact with his grandkids that we share. He had a special, different relationship with each one.”
Mr. Kellett is survived by his wife of 63 years, Kathleen; children Peggy (Mark) Schmidt, John (Julie) Kellett, Patrick (Mary) Kellett, Maureen (John) Steurer, Dick (Theresa) Kellett, Mary (Tim) Rone and Karen (Glenn) McDermott; grandchildren Erin (Jason) Brauss, Katie (Adam) Gardner, Emily (Jamie) Hollingshead, Carrie Schmidt, Lauren Kellett, Colleen Kellett, Michael Kellett, Jack Kellett, John Steurer, Sam Steurer, Matt Steurer, Shannon Steurer, Will Steurer, Meghan (Aaron) Piwowarczyk, Molly (David) Schwer, Kayln (Adam) Piwowarczyk, Danny Kellett, Liam Rone, Kathleen Rone, Maggie Rone, Molly Rone, Audrey McDermott, and Ava McDermott; great-grandchildren Aiden, Gavin, Tyler, Emma, Noah, Aubree, Nora, Max and Paiton; and sister Ruth Wania.
A funeral mass was held Feb. 20 at St Rose Philippine Duchesne in Florissant, with interment at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
MEMORIALS TO $5 FOR THE FIGHT
In a final gift to the Labor Movement, Mr. Kellett’s wishes were that memorials be made as donations to “$5 for the Fight,” which helps union families in times of financial hardship, at “$5 for the Fight” c/o St. Louis Labor Council, 3301 Hollenberg Dr., Bridgeton, Mo. 63044, or online at labortribune.com/5-for-the-fight.