Doug Robinson: Utah man discovers powerful story behind family's 'forgotten' soldier

Published: Tuesday, March 4 2014 3:30 p.m. MST

Second Lt. Gerald Kelly is shown with his plane somewhere in Europe.

Doug Robinson

On the surface, this is the story of a Utahn who was killed in World War II — a man who so endeared himself to others in his brief life that three children would be named after him. But it is more than that. It is equally the story of one relative’s intense need to know him 70 years later.

What would drive a young man to search archives and read more than a hundred old letters and track down aging comrades-in-arms and travel hundreds of miles to talk to them and hire a researcher to assist his cause, all to learn more about an ancestor he never knew and barely heard of?

Ultimately, it’s the story of the nearly inexplicable pull of family, the urge to know more about people who help form our lives and the power of genealogy.

Ryan Kelly, a 30-year-old investment analyst at Evergreen Capital Management, contacted me last summer after reading a story I had written about Don Snarr, a 90-year-old World War II pilot. “There is much written about veterans still alive, which I think is important,” he wrote. “But I think perhaps more could be written about the heroes who never made it home.”

His reasons for telling the story proved deeper than that.

In his youth, Kelly had heard about his great uncle Jerry Kelly, but only that he had been killed during the war. Ryan’s grandfather and Jerry’s brother, Gene, a World War II pilot in the Pacific, had found it too painful to talk of the war or his only brother. He died of a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 54. The family believes if he had lived longer he would have opened up about the war, as many veterans eventually do. Anyway, there was scant information about Jerry, and, as Kelly says, “Jerry was kind of forgotten in the family.”

It might have remained that way if Kelly hadn’t been moved upon by events in his life. Two of his close friends died within days of each other last summer. “That got me thinking about life and death,” he says. And then he watched a TV interview with David McCullough in which the historian said, among other things, that we are all shaped by people we’ve never met.

“That one phrase caught my attention,” says Kelly. “I started thinking about my great uncle. I asked my dad about his Uncle Jerry, and I realized that my family knew next to nothing about him. His story just hadn't been passed down. He gave his life for the freedoms we enjoy every day, yet we didn't even have a picture of him. In fact, my dad had no memory of ever seeing a photo of Jerry, his only uncle.”

Knowing that Jerry had attended Granite High School, Kelly called the school district and learned that it had a collection of old yearbooks in a basement vault. During a lunch break, Kelly thumbed through the 1942 yearbook and found a picture of the senior class officers — and there was Jerry, the senior class president. “He looks like Joe DiMaggio,” says Kelly. He took a photo of the page and sent it to family members. “He looks like you,” many of them replied.

“Something clicked after that,” says Kelly. “I became obsessed with learning more about him. I’d say since August there hasn’t been a two-hour period of time when I haven’t thought about him.”

He searched for more information. Kelly wrote a letter to one of Jerry’s former classmates, 89-year-old Richard Winder, and they talked on the phone. “He told me that Jerry was really smart, outgoing and was a true gentleman to everyone. He said some of the very finest guys in the Granite High class of 1942 were killed in the war.”

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