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Locals Remember John Kelly Before He Was White House Chief Of Staff

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General John Kelly grew up in Brighton.
AP

President Donald Trump has described John Kelly as one of the “stars” of the administration for his service over just six months as Secretary of Homeland Security, and today Trump used twitter to announce the retired four star general was his new chief of staff.  

Kelly grew up right here in Brighton, just down the road from the WGBH News studios. Back in January, not long after he’d been sworn in as Secretary of Homeland Security, I reached out to some distinguished locals, to get a sense of General Kelly’s Boston roots.

I started with a childhood friend. William Galvin, Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth, grew up alongside the young John Kelly, whose father was a postal worker in Brighton. The boys shared a daily commute from Boston to high school in Waltham, and Galvin remembers his friend having “a certain quick wit and charm which I assume he retains.” Brighton had fewer businesses and more residents in those days, and Galvin recalls it fondly as a place where neighbors knew each other. “It was a diverse community for its time in terms of different ethnicities easily commingling…. It was more mixed than many other neighborhoods of the city at the time. And it was a nice place to grow up.”  

John Kelly joined the Marine Corps in 1970, and after his discharge in 1972 he came home, graduating from UMass Boston in 1976. He re-enlisted in the corps, became an officer, and finished his career as Commander of the United States Southern Command. Tom Lyons is the Managing Director of Government Affairs & Corporate Communications at MassHousing, and he’s known General Kelly for 25 years.

“I’ve seen a guy from our hometown rise through the ranks to become a four-star general in the Marine Corps,” he said, “and all along the way, he never forgot his family, friends, in Brighton where he grew up”

That feeling seems to be pretty much shared by everyone who knows Kelly. Dan Magoon is a Boston firefighter, and combat veteran who founded Massachusetts Fallen Heroes, which honors those who have died in the war on terror since 9/11.

Magoon says that in 2010, when they began organizing for a memorial, the first person he called was Kelly, who agreed to speak at a fundraiser that December.  “Unfortunately,” Magoon recalls, “in November of that year, we were notified that General Kelly’s son Robert had been killed in action in Southern Afghanistan.”

Kelly was now both a four-star general, and a gold star family member.

But he still came to Boston for the Fallen Heroes event, delivering an inspiring speech about sacrifice. He didn’t mention his own loss. Tom Lyons says, “as a gold star family member, he knows how important his message is when he’s talking to people about the tragedies of war but also the importance of how we remember those that have given their lives for our freedom.” 

Lyons tells a story he says reveals the depth of Kelly’s connection to Boston, and his commitment to those who serve.

After the Boston Marathon Bombing, Lyons got a call from his old friend. “The general called me and said, as he usually does, ‘Lyons: I’m coming up on this day, I want you to get as many first responders who were at the marathon that day together, ‘cause I want to talk to them, I want to tell them how marvelous they are, I want to tell them what great Americans they are but I also want to tell them that as a marine who led marines in combat, if they need any support they have to reach out to family members or just reach out to someone who they can tell their story to.’ 

"And that, to me, said an awful lot about him caring about the people who are in public service," Lyons said.

Lyons adds the men and women who work in homeland security — including his own son, an Immigrations and Enforcement Agent — are lucky to have the general’s support and guidance. 

This post was updated on July 28, 2017.

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