Donald A. Kelly
15 November 2006
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Donald A. Kelly (b. 1935, New York, New York) is the grandson of Irish immigrants from counties Roscommon, Cavan and Longford. He is the fourth of five children and the third of four sons, born to James Francis (d. 1980) and Elizabeth Kelly (d. 1974). He is the older brother of Raymond W. Kelly (b. 1941) who, at the time of this interview, was Commissioner of the New York City Police Department.
Kelly’s formative years were spent in St. Gregory the Great parish, in the neighborhood around Columbus Avenue between 89th and 90th Streets on Manhattan’s upper west side. He began his education in the parish grammar school, later attended Power Memorial High School (West 61st Street, Manhattan), and graduated from Straubenmuller Textile High School (West 18th Street, Manhattan) in 1953. Later that year, Kelly enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served for three years, during which time he was sent to Puerto Rico twice.
After returning from military service, Kelly began working as a bank teller for Emigrant Savings Bank at their main branch office on Chambers Street in Manhattan and attended Pace University at night. He retired in 2006 after forty-eight years with Emigrant; during the last twenty of those years, Kelly was senior vice-president of retail banking, community relations, and corporate security. At the time of this interview, Emigrant Savings Bank was the last of the great nineteenth century thrift institutions to survive under its original name; it was established in New York City in 1850 to promote and enable the careful management of money by primarily Irish and Catholic immigrants.(1) A century later, Donald Kelly’s time with Emigrant Savings Bank coincided with major changes in the industry including the introduction of checking accounts, computers, and automatic teller machines as well as the acquisition by merger of many new branch offices in the metropolitan area.(2)
In the tradition of Emigrant Savings Bank’s founders, Kelly was able to help undocumented Irish immigrants living in New York City in the mid-1980s obtain bank accounts to protect their wages from theft. He also became involved with the Emerald Isle Immigration Center (EIIC), a Queens-based organization that provides assistance to newly-arrived Irish immigrants. At the time of this interview, Kelly was serving as President of the Executive Committee of the EIIC.
Married to Maureen Levinson since 1961, Don Kelly raised two daughters and two sons in Resurrection-Ascension parish in Rego Park, Queens, New York.
Excerpt No. 1
New York Irish street cultureDisc 1, 36:09–37:48
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
DK: When he [Kelly's father] worked for Sheffield (3), everybody had a nickname. Irish New York City culture is nicknames – I mean, I could name twenty nicknames of guys I grew up with. One night they, Saturday night, my father and mother go up to visit Aunt Molly and her husband on the subway. They took the west side IRT.(4) So they’re coming back down, and they get on the train. It’s late – it’s midnight or something – they get on, and they see a guy my father worked with. And he’s known the guy for fifteen years, and his [nick]name was Mallet; nickname Mallet-Head, Mallet. That’s his [nick]name, but he forgot the guy’s real name – he had never called him by the name. So, he introduced my mother and all this stuff. So, getting out [of] the train – they [Mallet and his wife] went further downtown [than] 91st Street – and my mother says, “Nice to have met you, Mr. Mallet, Mrs. Mallet.” So, Monday morning or something, Mallet comes running over to my father [and says] “What do you mean?!” and all this stuff. [Kelly’s father later says] “I really didn’t – I forgot the guy’s name; it was Frankie or something like that.” And my mother didn’t mean anything by it, you know. It was all smoothened out, and all that, but it was kind of funny how those things happen. You know a guy by your nickname. We had them on the West Side.
MC: What was yours?
DK: No, I didn’t – the girls called me “Donnie Blue Eyes.” I didn’t like that, I didn’t like that name. But I was Kelly with the guys, that’s all. Not everybody – Georgie Finn, a good friend of mine, didn’t have a nickname. [But there was] Junior Malonus – “The Greek,” there was “Red” Hollohan, “Red” Brennan, “Red” McGrugen, “Fat” McPallen, “Fat” McGinn, “Fat” McGuinn, “Eddie Rabbit,” Pat “The Horse,” “Big Bill,” “Mambo,” “Itchy,” “Ditchy,” “Eddie Rabbit,” “Gopher,” so there’s a lot of them. I’m missing a few there too.
Excerpt No. 2
The importance of respecting womenDisk 2, 1:31–2:50
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
DK: And the girls were treated with respect then, too, even in a tough neighborhood. You didn’t dare curse around a girl, just an unwritten rule—if you did that, you know, you were gonna have a little facial. Basically, the girls that were carrying the books across the street for the nuns, see, they had the Monday night novena (5). When it was snowing out, we used to ambush them from the roof with snowballs and all that. Turn the corner right past the M&M Dairy, went up on the roof across the street. And that was kind of fun. And they’re holding their hats running down the street, throw snowballs down and all that kind of stuff. Just raising hell, if you could; there was certain lines to it. We were mischief-oriented, the guys were. You had energy and you were doing these things. But the borderline, you stopped – you always respected the girls. But that was something that they expected, the snowballs. And different weather, guys would go up with water balloons.
CO: What happened when you got caught?
DK: You never got caught because who’s going to go up on the roof at night? You don’t know if there’s two guys up there or twenty. You don’t know how – you have an idea who they are, unless, maybe – you don’t really want to hit them, you just wanted to throw in front of them or hit a car. If you ever hit a car with a water balloon, it makes a tremendous sound: splash! The water would spray out, see. There’s a lot of strategy to it.
Excerpt No. 3
Forty-eight years with Emigrant Savings BankDisk 2, 37:09–39:06
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
DK: So I got into this agency and got a job as a bank teller and never came back. Two blocks away, went into the bank [Emigrant Savings Bank at 51 Chambers Street in Manhattan].
MC: Through an agency, Don?
CO: What year was that?
DK: The Standard Agency. That was 1957. And then – I wanted to get it near downtown, near Pace (6) – I wanted to go to Pace at night. So it worked out pretty good, it was just four blocks from Pace. And, the teller was a good job then; some of the senior [tellers] – there were guys in their fifties making $110 dollars a week, which is pretty good money then.
CO: Do you remember your wages?
CO: Do you remember your wages?
DK: Yeah, sixty-five dollars a week to start. And you get five dollars when you open the [teller] window and another five dollars [to close it]. So I was making seventy five dollars a week by December, taking home maybe fifty-eight, something like that, or sixty one, and then I’d give my mother fifteen dollars a week, and the rest my own, all that stuff. So, no problem. And then the biggest promotion I got was senior teller, at that time, ’til – that was 1961 – and then, ’63, I applied for this job in Systems. By that time I had like 115 credits and I got the job in systems, which was a big raise, [a] twenty dollar raise which I liked. And then, 1969, I became an Officer of the Bank, and then Supervisor, and Assistant Branch Manager, Branch Manager, and then running the biggest branch, and then the division, the whole retail banking division. I won’t bore you with the years, just [that I was] approved up to Senior Vice President twenty years ago. That’s what I retired as. Out of 1,400 employees, there are nine Senior Officers, so I was one of nine, all different divisions.
CO: Why do you think you stayed at the same bank for more than forty years?
DK: I don’t know – why I stayed so long?
DK: Well, I liked it; I never thought of leaving. I felt I had a good future there. People liked me and respected me, more importantly, from a business standpoint. I liked my job, I liked what I was doing.
Excerpt No. 4
Helping undocumented Irish immigrants during the late 1980sDisk 2, 47:11–48:19
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
CO: Will you talk a little bit about your involvement in [the] Irish American community now?
DK: Well, if you want, sure. That started back about twenty years ago, I guess, hot and heavy, where Angie McCarthy, a friend from the neighborhood [Middle Village in Queens] – her sons grew up with my sons – [told me that] Irish, newly-arrived Irish immigrants were having trouble getting bank accounts and were getting mugged a lot, because they carried their cash around, up in the Bronx. Marion, you must have heard that too. So I said, “Gee, that’s not right, why don’t we send them in” And some banks were getting – we had to have ID, and a lot of them did not have ID, so I said [we could accept an] Irish Passport, or something like that. So, I was doing a lot of informal things – cutting corners, to the point of legality, we’d get a lot of accounts for them. And I got to meet the people, and Brian O’Dwyer (7), and few other people, and we took care of a lot of Irish kids coming over, and helped them with accounts. Once you get an account established, have a checking account, you’re getting interest and you have a domicile, and your money is safe, most importantly. I mean, working hard for six or seven hundred a week and getting hit on the head and getting it stolen from you—not much worse than that. So, I think we stopped some of that.
- Connor Osetek [CO]
- Marion Casey [MC]
- Donald A. Kelly, 30 March 2007. Photo by Marion R. Casey.
- Emigrant Savings Bank, 51 Chambers Street in Manhattan, 1912. Courtesy of Donald A. Kelly.
- Marion R. Casey, “Refractive History: Memory and the Founders of the Emigrant Savings Bank,” in Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in theUnited States, eds. J.J. Lee and M.R. Casey (New York University Press, 2006), 302–331.
- Marion R. Casey and Patrick J. Mullins, Emigrant Savings Bank, since 1850: The Spirit of Thrift (VHS, 28 mins., Time Lapse Media, 2000)
- James Francis Kelly worked as a delivery man for Sheffield Farms Milk Company.
- The Interboro Rapid Transit Company (IRT) ran New York City’s first subway line, which opened in 1904,between City Hall and 145th Street at Broadway.
- This is one of the eleven indulgenced novenas permitted by the Catholic Church to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary.
- Pace University; its New York City campus is opposite City Hall.
- Brian O’Dwyer is senior partner in the law firm of O’Dwyer & Bernstien, and Chair of the Executive Committee of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center.