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Phil Kelly, the valley's jovial raconteur, dies at 68

By Tom Eastman

EATON — The valley has lost another great one.

That was the common refrain heard from many friends throughout the region upon learning of the death of popular local icon and gifted Irish raconteur Phil Kelly, 68, of natural causes at his home Aug. 31.

9-3-phill-kelly-1Phil KellyVisiting hours are set for Furber and White Funeral Home Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., with a service set for Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in North Conway Friday at 11 a.m., according to Charlie Sutton of Furber and White. A reception is scheduled to be held immediately following at the Eagle Mountain House, according to longtime friend Brian Smith of North Conway.

A Jackson native, divorced from his former wife JoAnn, and father of four, Kelly was well-known for his jovial smile, great stories and hearty laugh, whether as a bartender in the old days of the Wildcat Tavern, behind the counter when he ran Phase III breakfast and lunch eatery in North Conway Village or the Eaton Village Store on two different stints, or as the assistant golf pro at the Eagle Mountain House Golf Course in Jackson, the job he held at the time of his death.

“He was always smiling, and he made you smile and laugh, too. We definitely will miss him,” said Eagle Mountain House Golf Course golf pro Bob McGraw Tuesday. "I never saw the guy upset — he rolled with the punches. If someone was a little off, he just smiled. He loved the Don Ho Golf League here — he would always fire off the cannon to start play every week at 5:30 with a shotgun start both days.  ’KABOOM!’ He loved that.  He was also a very good golfer, probably a 7 or 8 handicap. He made everyone feel at home here at the Eagle. He also knew so many stories!”

That sentiment was shared by Smith who shared many an adventure with Kelly, whether on the golf course, ski slopes or roadways out West.

“We lived together several times over the years,” said Smith. “We drove back from Colorado together once in 1970, with the sun shining on one side of the Aspen Pass and snow coming down hard on the other side. We went by signs that said chains only coming up, and we were in a pickup truck with bald tires! It was quite a thing; pretty exciting — that was in 1970 or '71. I always relied on Phil for his memory for these things. I'd tell him about an event that I went to, and he'd say, 'I know: I was there with you, Brian!’ He remembered all that stuff, about Jackson history and valley history. Now I'm going to need to find someone to put up with my bad golf and play with me.

“He was just a dear friend and a good person who had such a love for his family,” added Smith. “He was a good listener; extremely empathetic with people about all the crazy things that happen to people in life. He would lend an ear and a helping hand. That was his trip — he was just an all-around good person; funny as heck, and a teller of such stories. The thing was, they were all true — you couldn't make this stuff up!”

Longtime friends B.J. and Alicia (Mulkern) Hawkes of Jackson also shared their tales of working with Kelly over the years, with B.J. — now a bartender at the North Conway Country Club — relating how he and Kelly ran the Wildcat Tavern following the big snow year of 1968-69.

The problem was, there was very little snow that year, and in those days, there was no snowmaking at ski resorts. That made for a long season for B.J. and Kelly.

“We couldn't wait for that lease to end!” laughed B.J., who said despite that troubling business year, he and Kelly always enjoyed one another's company, especially out on the golf course. “We teamed up against [North Conway Country Club pro] Larry Gallagher and Gene Chandler many times and won one way or another. Larry still talks about that every now and then and scratches his head of how we would ding and dong, helping one another out, carrying one another's game to win.”

Added wife Alicia Hawkes, “He was always my big brother since we moved to Jackson in 1953 [from Massachusetts]. We graduated from Kennett High together. We moved to Aspen together after high school; again as a big brother and sister, along with a friend. I think we had $45 between us!”

“I hired him as a bouncer when he was just 18. That was probably illegal, but he was such a big guy,” said Alicia's brother, Tommy Mulkern, co-operator of the family's Shannon Door Pub, known in the early days as the Oak Lee Lodge.

Alicia said Kelly was looking forward to their Class of 1963's high school reunion, planned for Sept. 21 at the Shannon Door. “He had already sent in his check. He was always a good friend,” said Alicia.

Fellow Kennett High graduate and Eaton Village Store postmistress Nancy Williams knew Kelly when she was a high school cheerleader and he was a football player. Interviewed Tuesday, she said she was planning to write a tribute for her weekly Eaton town column in The Conway Daily Sun next Tuesday.

“We had so many stories — I knew him for 50 years!” said Williams. “He had a quick temper but then, that would go away and he had that smile and laugh! He knew so much about everything. I am glad he got those years on the golf course [in the end].”

• • •

Kelly was profiled in a feature story in The Conway Daily Sun in February 2011, a week prior to the end of his five-year lease of the Eaton Village Store. The store's lease was taken over by current operators Willie and Kristin Hatch. (When Willie Hatch became ill this spring, Kelly — who lived nearby — stepped up to the plate and filled in for Hatch, according to a story in Williams' weekly Eaton Town Column).

A few regulars stopped in that week to wish Kelly well in his new endeavors at the golf course and in collecting knives and antiques. That's when the stories started, most of them off-the-record (the kind Kelly and sidekick Peter Case told best).

Friends Norman Head and Bob Holmes related that Kelly's dad was police chief in Jackson when they were growing up. 

“[Maurice] Beanie Kelly never arrested anyone his whole time as chief,” said Holmes. Added Head, “If you did something wrong, he would put you in the cruiser and you had to drive around the town with him, traveling at 15 miles an hour and listening to his advice. That was punishment enough when you were a kid.”

Phil Kelly ran the Eaton Village Store in the 1970s, ran his own Phil's Phase III for 10 years in the space that was once home to Faye's Diner in North Conway Village, served as a golf pro at the Eagle Mountain House in Jackson for three years, and then took over the Eaton Village Store lease from the non-profit Eaton Village Preservation Society in 2006.

“I knew that going in; that that's the commitment that's needed to run a small store in a small community,” said Kelly in 2011. “Well, maybe it doesn't take the kind of commitment I have made, but it is a lot of work. It's not just about making money, because you could do that better by running a McDonald's. You've got to love it, and you've got to be a real people's person and enjoy people. Not to mention their stories — well, most of them!” laughed Kelly.

In the February 2011 interview, Kelly said with people stopping by the store to wish him well in his last few weeks before the end of the lease made him feel a bit like he was going to his own Irish wake.

“Without the whisky,” he quipped.

There will be time for that now.

• • •

According to Sutton of Furber and White, an obituary on Kelly is scheduled to appear in Thursday's Conway Daily Sun.

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