Professor Emeritus John Kelly: 1935 - 2022

Posted 15 November 2022

The University community is saddened by the death of John Kelly, Professor Emeritus, on 12 November 2022.

John Kelly was awarded a BE in Chemical Engineering from University College Dublin in 1957. Initially he worked in industry in Ireland and the UK, from 1957 to 1963. He returned to UCD to undertake his doctorate and began lecturing. During that period he was a senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Maryland.

He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1976 and appointed Dean of the Faculty of Engineering in 1979. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla in 1982. He took up the post of Registrar and Deputy President from 1986-1994.

He served as a member of the governing bodies of University College Dublin and Dublin City University in 1982 remaining on the former until 1998 and the latter until 1987. He was elected by the Governing Body of UCD to the Senate of the National University of Ireland and served until 1997.

On completion of his term as Registrar and Deputy, he was appointed Professor of Chemical Engineering until his retirement in 2000.

In 2007, he was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree by Bethlehem University in Palestine in recognition of his contribution to its academic development over some twenty five years.

John was an ambitious and far-sighted university leader, who often identified and acted on opportunities before they came to the attention of others. Starting in the late 1970s, he targeted a dramatic increase in the number of women studying engineering.

He held a number of very successful events for schoolgirls in Merrion Street, home of UCD Engineering at that time. Following these events, the numbers of female students entering first year rose from 2% to 17% in the following year, and were to gradually increase thereafter, keeping pace with international standards. He often spoke in later years of his pride in the fact that a number of those attending the event had gone on to positions of engineering leadership.

John invested much effort in persuading the Government to fund a move of the UCD Engineering facilities from the 1911 Royal College of Science for Ireland building (now Government Buildings) to what was to become the state-of-the art UCD Engineering and Materials Science Centre, Belfield, opened in 1989.

He was happy to recount one Saturday morning tour of the Merrion Street building with the then Taoiseach Charles Haughey who looked over the balcony above the entrance hall and reportedly declared this building was “too good for a bunch of engineers”. Mission accomplished, as both parties were satisfied.

Earlier in the 1980s, John was instrumental in setting up the Engineering Graduates Association, the EGA, which in turn raised the finances from its alumni in Irish engineering industries to build the University Industry Centre on the Belfield campus. This was built alongside the new engineering building, with a mission to support industrial innovation and strengthen links with the engineering research in the University.

UCD’s innovation and entrepreneurship activities were nurtured and developed here, and grew from this first home to their current extensive facilities in NovaUCD. John was well regarded in the engineering field and in 2018 was presented with the ESB Outstanding Contribution to Engineering Award at the Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards.

During his role as Registrar of UCD, John recognised the importance of international networks and in 1990 ensured that the University became a founding member of UNICA, the Network of Universities from the Capitals of Europe.
Having witnessed at first-hand the difficulties students with disabilities had trying to navigate the campus, he played a key role in developing a service for students with disabilities. In his role as Registrar he worked closely with students in addressing their needs. His contribution was significant, and was marked by UCD in 2018 to celebrate thirty years of Disability Services in UCD.

What started as a small number of individuals gathering at a bench in UCD to identify their specific needs has now evolved into a mainstream, universally designed approach for supporting all students. Never one to stand still, John subsequently expanded the vision a UCD-based solution to a national approach to inclusion in all Irish universities. This national movement became AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access & Disability.

In recognition of this pioneering work, AHEAD launched The John Kelly Award for Universal Design in Further and Higher Education in 2019, recognising the innovative practices in further and higher education which deliver a more inclusive learning experience for students. This year UCD worked in partnership with AHEAD to revamp the awards and the ceremony was held in O'Reilly Hall on 17 October. The team in UCD Access and Lifelong Learning were delighted that John and his wife Nora, attended the ceremony on campus and presented the awards to the winners.

As part of the Belfield 50 Project, John and his daughter Merlo were interviewed about their own experiences in the early days of Belfield. He relates a number of anecdotes around his accomplishments and talks, not just about the Engineering move, but the University’s move from Earlsfort Terrace in 1970. Merlo talks about Saturdays with her brothers sailing their Optimist boat on the lake and playing with model cars while their father looked over the latest developments – lovely family memories. 

When Margaret Atwood visited campus in 2018 to receive the Ulysses Medal, John was a guest of honour, given his stewardship of the Ireland Canada University Foundation, which continues to fund UCD’s Chair of Canadian Studies.
His skills and experience were in demand and John was generous with his time and expertise on boards and chairing a number of national organisations.

Throughout his retirement, John continued to take an active interest in UCD, and was a frequent visitor to campus. Never one to really retire, John was always busy and, demonstrating his eclectic intellect, his book Joyce the Student: University College, Dublin 1898-1902 was published in 2021.

The University extends its sympathies to John’s wife, Nora and children James, Mary Louise (Merlo), Michael, and John (Johnny).

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílís.

(OF, AA, BG, DT, EC, ER, BF, EOB, MS)