John Frederic Kelly, 59, wrote features, profiles for The Sun

June 03, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

John Frederic Kelly, whose colorful and incisive feature reporting appeared in The Sun and Sunday Sun Magazine for two decades as a staff writer and free-lance author, died Tuesday of cancer at his Bolton Hill residence. He was 59.

An irascible writer who changed his byline in 1982 from Frederic to John because he thought it was a stronger sounding name, he delighted in profiling such characters as a female roller skating champion, a taxidermist, a gambler, a parking lot attendant, bottle hunters, a hokey cart pusher, a peep show attendant and a taxi driver -- for animals.

He could be uproariously funny in writing about the struggles of contemporary life -- such as owning a water bed, getting divorced, going bankrupt or dealing with "Kafkaesque" computerized messages from stores.

Interested in the life and works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose letters and books he collected, Mr. Kelly chronicled in 1974 the author's desperate years here.

In "F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Baltimore Years," Mr. Kelly wrote: "Fitzgerald crept quietly into Baltimore in the spring of 1932. . . . His hope, his dreams, his optimism were shattered. . . . Yet, ironically, some of his finest prose was written during this period."

The son of a pharmacist, Mr. Kelly was born in Troy, N.Y., and raised in the town of Owego. After serving in the Army from 1953 to 1956, and attaining the rank of staff sergeant, he attended college on the G.I. Bill and graduated cum laude from Drew University.

He began his newspaper career as a county government reporter in 1962 for the Binghamton (N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin and a year later went to work for the New Haven (Conn.) Register writing for its Sunday magazine.

From 1966 to 1970, he worked as a personal assistant to author Cornelius Ryan on "A Bridge Too Far," a book detailing the Allied defeat at Arnhem, the Netherlands. Mr. Kelly conducted most of the European research and painstakingly interviewed survivors of the fighting in which 7,800 British troops were killed by two German panzer divisions.

He credited Ryan with instilling in him a sense of thoroughness when conducting interviews. Ryan's lessons, Mr. Kelly wrote in a 1977 article on him, were: "Get the facts. Don't trust anybody's memory for anything. Memories are not infallible. Accuracy is for historians."

Former Sunday Sun editor Harold A. Williams Jr. said Mr. Kelly was "an outstanding feature writer who wrote with a great deal of detail and color."

Connie Knox, a longtime newspaper colleague, said, "Fred was probably one of the finest reporters and writers The Sun had. He once wrote a profile of [Baltimore lawyer and former U.S. Attorney General] Benjamin Civiletti for The Sun Magazine that was so thoroughly researched it left the reader convinced he or she had just spent an hour in Civiletti's shoes.

"And he had a wicked sense of humor that came out in his writing. Another piece for the magazine had Fred learning to be a bartender via a correspondence course. As he mixed -- and tested -- the drinks described in his lessons, his words and sentences got increasingly garbled.

"His loyalties and sense of duty were intense. He chafed under changing times that made assignments from editors a regular part of his day. 'Why can't they leave me alone and just let me write?' he grumbled, preferring the practice of coming up with his own story ideas."

After leaving The Sun, he worked as Sunday editor of the Annapolis Capital until 1988, and then was a senior editor at Baltimore Magazine until 1990.

Since last summer, he had been managing editor of the Real Estate Review published by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors and had worked until as recently as two weeks ago.

He collected coins, books about World War II and biographies. He enjoyed bicycling and seldom traveled abroad without one. He happily bicycled through Ireland, the Loire Valley and the Swiss Alps -- writing about the latter in a travel article for The Sun last year.

His marriage to the former Carol Newman ended in divorce.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Epiphany Episcopal Church, 2216 Pot Spring Road, Timonium.

He is survived by two sons, Scott F. Kelly of Chicago and Mark L. Kelly of Towson; four grandchildren; and a special friend, Sally McCann of Bolton Hill.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 43025, Baltimore 21236-0025; or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 3300 Falls Road, Baltimore 21211.

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