Now retired, Kelly has become a hot item on the lecture circuit WAR IN THE GULF


April 07, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

Woodbridge, Va. -- Calgary Downtown Rotary Club, Dallas-Fort Worth School of Law, National Postal Forum . . .

Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly is rattling off some of his upcoming speaking gigs scribbled in his appointment book.

Guardians of the Jewish Homes for the Aging, Mississippi Agricultural Network, Notre Dame ROTC . . .

And to think just a year ago his family worried that he'd be hanging around the house, depressed, with nothing to do, driving his wife crazy when he retired.

American Automobile Association, Merrill Lynch, Chapman College . . .

And there goes the phone again. (Or is it the fax this time?)

Sure, he's telling the caller, he'll ring the Liberty Bell as a thank-you to the troops. Does that include a speech? No problem. He'll even do it for free because it's a patriotic thing to do and he's so darn fond of that old bell. Just make sure you run it by his New York agent so they don't book him for something else that day. Don's the guy to talk to.

Speeches, faxes, fees, Don. Such is the postwar life of soldier-turned-folk hero Tom Kelly, the three-star Army general whose ruddy face and ready quips became known to millions of TVviewers as he conducted the daily Pentagon press briefings during the Persian Gulf war.

Chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff until his retirement just over a week ago, the engaging, bearish 58-year-old -- the man who added the verb "to attrit" to our lexicon -- has emerged from "34 years, three months and 27 days" in the military to a whole new life.

There's the new house in the Virginia suburbs that General Kelly and his wife, Dorothy, have just moved into, a large brick Colonial with an American flag and his three-star general's flag in the foyer, inexpensive paintings from Italy (where he served at the NATO command in Naples from 1979 to 1982) on the walls, Neapolitan mastiff Scruffy (also acquired in Italy) to sloppily greet visitors at the door and so much still in boxes that a Department of Defense phone directory must suffice as a coaster for now.

There's the new civilian lingo -- to which he's obviously not yet adjusted. You may think your interview is scheduled for 4 o'clock. He plans to see you at "1600 hours."

But mostly, there's the new fame. Fan mail in bulk, autograph seekers wherever he goes (they mobbed him at a recent Wayne Newton concert) and requests for signed glossies (which the Pentagon has had made) for this unlikely celebrity.

"It seems that when I go places, people know who I am," says the general, wearing a presidential seal tie clip (a gift from President Bush) and a brass Operation Desert Storm watch (from the Kuwaiti ambassador) to spruce up his civilian attire. "People walk up to me and say, 'We feel like we know you. We watched you every day.' Even Johnny Carson watched every day."

Ah, yes. There has even been an appearance on the "Tonight" show. "Never traveled first class in my life till I went to the Carson show 'cause Uncle Sam doesn't do that," he says.

But now, he's getting used to first class. That's the way his agent flies him all over the country to the public appearances for which he's booked through February 1992.

"We've been in business 46 years and I don't think I've seen anybody this much in demand so quickly," says the general's agent Don Walker of the Harry Walker Agency in New York. "And we've only just begun. I wish I could clone him."

Already, General Kelly's folksy manner, his witty one-liners (his wife calls him an Irish Rodney Dangerfield) and his gleaming patriotism have landed him 70-plus speaking engagements. Although some, such as today's ringing of the Liberty Bell in his hometown of Philadelphia, are done for free, his average fee is $20,000 to $25,000 a pop.

Even his former boss, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell, joked at the general's recent retirement ceremony, "We weren't sure that he would be able to fit us in, but he did. And . . . we got the government rate. It's only going to cost us $10,000."

The new civilian concedes that between his annual Army pension of $67,400, his lucrative speaking engagements, his recently signed contract with NBC News as a military consultant and his new adjunct professorship in the engineering department of George Washington University, he'll be raking in sums "far beyond what I've ever been able to experience or thought that I'd experience."

"I'll be comfortable; I can pay off this house," he admits, adding that he has no plans to indulge in a more extravagant lifestyle, but instead to save or invest so he'll have a hefty "legacy" to leave to his three children -- Vincent, 31, a vice president of Metro Call, a beeper company; Frank, 30, a financial analyst for MCI; and Elizabeth, 19, an English major at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

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