There are great American lives all around us, rich and compelling individual stories that tell the tale of our country’s exceptional experience, so often commenced in a foreign land.
One such life is that of Loretta Kelly, a remarkable Wilmingtonian who began her American journey ninety years ago in the northern Lebanese village of Hadchit.
The State of Greater Lebanon, as that land was then known, was a byproduct of the League of Nations’ post-World War I dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, which mandated French rule over Syria and Lebanon. It would be another twenty years after Loretta’s birth before Lebanon would gain its independence.
Loretta descended from an ancient people who traced their roots to the dawn of the Christian faith, Maronite Catholics that steadfastly inhabited the holy, cedar-forested Valley of Qadisha through centuries of religious and political turmoil.
Her family included learned priests (a grandfather was bestowed the rare title of Monsignor) and Aramaic scholars who like so many others from that region found their way to the Midwestern United States. In Loretta’s case, as an infant, her parents trundled her up for the long sea voyage to America, seeking new opportunity in the city of St. Louis where there was and still is a vital Lebanese community.
Because the story has been told so many times, it can be easy for us to shrug off as par for the course a grueling two week-plus ocean trek that so many of our immigrant ancestors endured to seek opportunity on these shores, but the kind of bravery Loretta’s parents showed in undertaking that adventure should not go without remark.
And when these newcomers arrived the grass wasn’t always immediately greener; Loretta’s family had good years and bad in their new homeland, success in the grocery trade was also met with misfortune when their store burned to the ground.
St. Louis is where Loretta’s Delaware journey would begin, on a blind date with an ebullient Irishman from Wilmington named John D. Kelly III.
Soon after that fortuitous meeting – the larger-than-life John D had originally come to the Gateway City for business and a golf tournament – the Kellys wed and moved east to start a family and quickly became immersed into community and civic life.
Well before it was commonplace, Loretta expertly juggled the responsibility of work and motherhood, enjoying a successful 36-year career at Paine Webber while raising three children, John, Michael and Mary Ann. John D, impresario of the legendary Logan House in Trolley Square, went on to serve as New Castle County Sheriff and then as Register in Chancery for more than twenty years.
Today, ninety years on from Hadchit, the Kelly children – a doctor and two lawyers – are at the top of their fields and their mother Loretta is still the family leader, strong, enduring in her faith and humbly celebrating a milestone birthday that says as much about her courage and spirit as it does the American dream. Happy Birthday, Mrs. Kelly.