Joseph B. Kelly, the dean of Maryland turf writers and nationally known thoroughbred historian who also had been the longtime racing editor of the old Washington Star, died Monday of cancer at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium.
The Charles Village resident was 94.
"Joe was a walking encyclopedia on the history of the Maryland horse racing industry. He was the embodiment of the Selima Room, the Woodward Collection and the Bel Air Museum and Stable all wrapped up into one," said Ross Peddicord, former Baltimore Sun racing writer who is executive director of the Maryland Horse Industry Board.
"I sure hope he cataloged a lot of his research, writings and materials and that they will be accessible. He covered racing when there were half-mile tracks at Havre de Grace, Bel Air, Upper Marlboro, Hagerstown and Cumberland and witnessed many of the great horse races from Citation to Secretariat to I'll Have Another," said Mr. Peddicord.
Mike Gathagan, vice president of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club, said the response to the news of Mr. Kelly's death has been overwhelming. "I've heard from racing writers across the country who said it won't be the same without Joe because he was such a fixture in racing," he said. "He was the greatest."
Cricket Goodall, executive director of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, met Mr. Kelly nearly 30 years ago when they both worked on the Maryland Million. "He loved racing. He loved Pimlico, and he had so many stories to tell. Joe had the ability to be down-to-earth and everyone knew how much he liked racing," said Ms. Goodall.
Vinnie Perrone, former Washington Post racing reporter who is now an author, said, "Like a great thoroughbred, Joe Kelly had speed, class and a great heart."
The son of a civilian Navy Department employee and a homemaker, Joseph Bernard Kelly was born in Baltimore and raised on Poultney Street in Federal Hill.
Mr. Kelly attended Holy Cross School and Loyola High School. In 1935, he was a member of Loyola's first graduating class after its move from Mount Vernon to Blakefield. He matriculated at Loyola College, where he edited The Greyhound, the school's newspaper, and earned a bachelor's degree in 1939.
He worked for several years at the city's old Department of Public Welfare, where he met his future wife, M. Stewart Monaghan, whom he married in 1949.
Mr. Kelly began his career in 1943 in the sports department of The Sun, where he covered general sports for three years before joining the racing beat.
Snowden Carter, who covered racing for The Evening Sun, later became the editor of The Maryland Horse Magazine.
Mr. Kelly won the Humphrey S. Finney Award presented by the Maryland Racing Writers in 1993, and in the program Mr. Carter wrote that his lifelong friend was "always a $2 bettor who enjoys the fraternity of horseplayers."
On Oct. 30, 1947, Mr. Kelly and his newsroom colleague, Jim McManus, later ABC's Jim McKay, made local broadcasting history when they appeared on the first program televised by a Baltimore TV station. In the afternoon, the reporters covered live the fifth and sixth races from Pimlico Race Track for WMAR-TV, then owned by The Sunpapers.
"I wasn't fazed at all or the least bit nervous because TV then didn't have the impact that it does today," said Mr. Kelly, who described the broadcast as somewhat "primitive" 50 years later in a 1997 interview with The Sun.
He returned to the airwaves in 1948, when he was present at the first televised Preakness.
"I recall riding an escalator in Hutzler's department store after the first broadcast and a lady shouting, 'I saw you on TV,'" Mr. Kelly said in the 1997 article.
Citation won the Preakness that year and remained Mr. Kelly's all-time favorite horse, and was a member of what he called the exclusive "Big Three Club" that included such equine legends as Man O'War and Secretariat.
"Citation is still my favorite horse," he told The Sun in a 1998 interview. "Citation was such a versatile horse that could overcome muddy tracks or fast tracks, short races or long races," he told The Sun in a 1998 interview. "He could adapt to any and all circumstances."
Mr. Kelly left The Sun in 1951 when he joined the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, where he was secretary of its Maryland Charles Town/Delaware division, and four years later joined The Washington Star where he wrote a column, "At the Races," and was racing editor.
When the paper folded in 1981, John D. Shapiro asked Mr. Kelly to become Laurel Race Course's media director, a position he held until 1984 when Frank De Francis bought out Mr. Shapiro.
Mr. Kelly explained in the 1993 Maryland Racing Writers program that he had no intention of retiring, even though the Social Security checks were regularly arriving at his longtime Guilford Avenue home.
"Retire to what?" he asked. "I love horse racing, horse people and horse tracks. I've been working on Pimlico's Preakness guide every year, and I'm publicity director for the Maryland Million. I'm happy in my work. Always have been."
He had served as the Maryland Million's publicity director since the race's inception in 1986, and was still handling this job as well as being an historical consultant at Pimlico and the Maryland Jockey Club at the time of his death.
He was often sought by local and national media as an expert on the Preakness and other racing matters.
Because of his genial personality, Mr. Kelly moved easily among the millionaires who owned and raced horses, the veterinarians and stable boys who cared for them, and the exercise riders and jockeys who rode them.
He also appreciated the majesty, drama and sweep of racing and its importance to Maryland. In 1994, he wrote "At the Track: Thoroughbred Racing in Maryland, 1870-1973," for a special issue of the Maryland Historical Magazine devoted to turf sports in Maryland history.
"He had a keen interest not only in Maryland racing lore, but all of Marylandia. He was the last personification of a bygone era when colorful characters like J. Edgar Hoover, Izzy Cohen, Muggins Feldman, Mister Diz, Clem Florio and Charlie Eckman were fixtures at the Maryland tracks," said Mr. Peddicord.
For years, old Pimlico with its wooden stands that were replaced in 1959 by today's steel and concrete structure, and its old Victorian era clubhouse that looked as though it had been plucked from the top deck of a Mississippi River steamboat, were central components and remained so of Mr. Kelly's life for nearly 70 years.
A 1966 electrical fire destroyed the venerable club house. In a 2002 interview with The Sun, Mr. Kelly, who had witnessed the fire, said, "It was sad. A part of racing burned down that night. The old clubhouse was a way of life for racing fans."
"Joe never got worn down and never gave up hope that Pimlico would one day return to its heyday, when it was the showcase for Maryland racing and not just the Preakness," said Ms. Goodall.
Mr. Kelly continued visiting Pimlico nearly every day and writing stories in both longhand and on a manual typewriter.
Last month, Mr. Kelly received the first Robert and Anne Heighe award for excellence in equestrian journalism in a ceremony that was held at Harford Community College's Hays-Heighe House. Gov. Martin O'Malley proclaimed Oct. 19, 2012, as a "Special Day of tribute to Joseph B. Kelly in Maryland."
While he enjoyed vacations at Rehoboth Beach, Del., and hosting an annual St. Patrick's Day party, it was racing that defined his life.
Mr. Kelly was sanguine when it came time for him to explain his secret for longevity: "Life is just series of adjustments," he said.
His wife of 44 years died in 1993.
Mr. Kelly was a longtime communicant of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, 740 N. Calvert St., where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered 11 a.m. Friday.
Surviving are two sons, Jacques Kelly, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and Edward J. Kelly, both of Baltimore; four daughters, Ellen Cora Kelly, Mary Stewart Kelly, and Josephine S. O'Rourke, all of Baltimore, and Ann Rose Whaley of Ocean View, Del.; a sister, Mary Agnes Evelius of Timonium; and five grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun