By Michelle Bradford
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette – August 6, 2006
ROGERS – Gene Kelley got word at 6 a.m. that a birth mother in eastern Arkansas wanted to talk. An early riser, Kelley was already in his Rogers law office, anticipating the day. With an adoption suddenly in motion, Kelley cleared his calendar and called his clients, a Fayetteville couple who desperately wanted a child. He climbed into his voice-activated Acura and headed for Interstate 540.
On the road, he thought about all he’d accomplished since coming to Arkansas 45 years ago. For starters, he earned a law degree from the University Of Arkansas School Of Law – not too bad for a New Jersey boy who used to think Lake Ouachita started with a “W.” He married the love of his life, Joye, a Fayetteville native, and together they reared five successful children. Most of them have master’s degrees; three of them are lawyers. Over the years, Gene Kelley helped several powerful Democrats get elected and worked to charter banks across the state. He was the executive secretary to former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers when Bumpers was governor.
At 67, Kelley’s now a sought-after adoption lawyer who has placed more than 700 children into loving homes, many in Northwest Arkansas. Last year, he was one of three from Arkansas to receive Angels in Adoption Awards from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute in Washington. Each Christmas, he and his wife receive hundreds of cards from grateful adoptive parents. In east Arkansas that day, Kelley did what an adoption lawyer does best. He guided a birth mother and an adoptive couple through a roller coaster of emotions and a delicate legal process that ended with the signing of adoption papers.
Driving back to Rogers that night, Kelley stopped near the Bobby Hopper Tunnel and stretched his legs. The day left him exhausted and exhilarated. At that moment, he looked up at the Ozarks sky to give pause. Kelley’s work is seldom easy, and he feels he’s at the top of his game. “No one will be where I am,” he says. “I have no competition.”
Nothing Fazes Him
Connie Hendrix-Kral and her husband, Tim, sought Kelley’s help in adopting a child in 1994. Kelley came highly recommended, and Hendrix-Kral had a cousin in Florida who’d adopted through him. The couple was 23rd on a waiting list when Kelley called with some news. “Gene said a Texas couple was giving up their one-month-old baby,” Hendrix-Kral recalls. “We raced over and waited for hours and hours. Then, Gene started getting conflicting information, and he said, ‘My advice is you pull out.’ We agreed. It was right before Thanksgiving. I closed the door to my nursery. It was very, very painful. You just want a baby so bad.”
A few months later, seated near Kelley at an Arkansas Razorbacks basketball game, Hendrix-Kral saw him rise and leave the arena suddenly. His departure led to the arrival of their daughter, Bethany, who is now 11. “Gene’s got this air of utter unflappability,” Hendrix-Kral says. “Nothing fazes him. He just handles it. After we got a peek of Bethany in the hospital, we all went to dinner. Gene talked about his reasons for adoption work. He said that finding good homes for these children is very important to him.”
Seated in a spacious conference room of dark wood at the Kelley Law Firm, Kelley is a striking man of 6-foot-3 with a swoop of silver hair. His look on this day is impeccable: camel’s-hair suit, silk tie of peach and pink and leather shoes with skinny laces. His face crinkles into a smile when he talks about the children he has placed in homes. “These couples have showered their children with love, attention and affection, and it’s superlative,” Kelley says. “We don’t look for couples who are blue bloods or movie stars. I want down-to-earth people, someone who will provide a good, stable home based on a religion of kindness and respect.”
Kelley is a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and has served as their spokesman on issues involving international and domestic adoption. He charges between $20,000 to $25,000 per case, he says. The birth mother meets certain qualifications, and parties agree to terms involving their identities. “The event is a transaction, yes; ‘Here’s your baby.’ But I feel a responsibility to see that each child is going to a good home,” he says. “A lot of my kids are adults now, and I see them out in different venues. Some of them don’t know who I am, and I don’t feel at liberty to say.”
Kelley works to facilitate communication between the birth mother and adoptive parents. Many of the mothers, he says, stop any agreed-upon communication within a year or so after the adoption. “It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they’re secure their baby is safe and in good hands.”
The Jersey Shore
Kelley was a lanky bellhop with a flop of dark hair in the summer of 1959 when he met Joye Rouse on the Jersey Shore. Kelley, a native of Orange, N.J., had attended Villanova and Seton Hall universities but was eyeing out-of-state colleges when five UA coeds arrived on the shore for summer jobs. Love blossomed between Kelley and Rouse, a UA freshman, and Kelley soon began making trips to Fayetteville. He transferred to the UA in 1960, and the couple married the same year.
The former Ann Rainwater of Fayetteville was another one of the UA coeds who spent the summer with Joye in Asbury Park, N.J. In years to come, the Kelleys would socialize in political circles that included Ann and her husband, Dr. Morriss Henry, and other well-known Democrats: former President Bill and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. “We all liked Gene right off the bat,” remembers Ann Henry, a retired UA law professor. “He was so outgoing and positive. His hair was jet black then.
After that summer, he relocated down to Arkansas, and he and Joye married. They had their first baby her senior year. It was all pretty amazing.” Later, Kelley got interested in politics and became influential in several campaigns. His ability to bring people together has translated well in his current occupation, Henry says. “He’s been responsible for so many families through his commitment to adoption. He’s a ‘connector’ that way. Gene connects people,” she says.
As newlyweds, the Kelleys mingled with another young couple, Gaye Poynter and her husband, Terry, who was a law student at the UA. At that time, Kelley had an accounting degree, but jobs were scarce in Northwest Arkansas. “You could work in a dry goods store or sell appliances or cars,” Kelley says. “I didn’t view those as viable options. One night, after Joye and I attended a wedding, we spent the evening with Gaye and Terry Poynter. Terry and I talked for hours. He told me all about law school, and I asked a lot of questions. On the way home, I made a decision. I told Joye, ‘I think becoming a lawyer is something I can do.'”
The Man to Meet
Kelley worked as law clerk for Arkansas Supreme Court Judge Lyle Brown of Hope. After graduating from law school in 1967, he went into practice with Eli Leflar, but the Rogers lawyer died six months later. Later in his career, Kelley was a special justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court. Back in 1970, however, Kelley’s attention turned to politics when a Democrat named Dale Bumpers came to Rogers. Bumpers was in a crowded 10-candidate race for governor. He had plenty of support in Fort Smith and the River Valley, but he needed someone to run his Benton County campaign. He chose Kelley. “I’d been looking into helping someone get elected,” Kelley says, “So I asked Dale, ‘What are you going to do to get elected?’ He said, ‘I’m going to go out and talk to people.’ I laughed and said, ‘Jeez Dale, that’s going to get you nowhere.’ Later, I went to Little Rock to hear all 10 candidates speak. When I left, I knew I’d rather lose with Dale Bumpers than win with the rest of them.”
Bumpers carried Benton County in the primary and won the runoff against former Gov. Orval Faubus, with Kelley handling Bumpers’ push in the Third Congressional District. After Bumpers defeated Republican incumbent Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election, Kelley moved his growing family to Little Rock and served on Bumpers’ cabinet.
At 30, Kelley was executive secretary to the governor of Arkansas. He and Joye were also expecting their fourth child. As Bumpers’ gubernatorial term neared its end, the Kelleys moved back to Rogers, where Joye taught elementary school and Gene continued building his practice. Another young candidate, Bill Clinton, had come to town and Kelley’s law clerk, David Matthews, told Clinton that Kelley was the man to meet. Kelley supported Clinton in a failed run for Congress in 1974, then later when Clinton was elected Arkansas’ attorney general and eventually governor.
The Kelley family served as delegates at the 1976 Democratic Convention in New York, during which The New York Times ran a series of articles about them. Writer Roy Reed called Gene and Joye Kelley a husband and wife political team. A front-page headline read, “City baffles and amuses Arkansas family.”
After the convention, Kelley focused his lawyering on organizing banks and savings and loans. He’d already met people across the state through his campaign work, and despite tough resistance from competitors, Kelley helped secure bank charters in Mountain Home, Rogers and Flippin, among other places. Little Rock lawyer John Gill worked with Kelley on the charters and remembers they were exceptionally hard to get. Matters often turned vicious, he says. “Gene had the ability to analyze the situation and approach it from the standpoint of how it would benefit the community,” Gill says. “He could go into a community in Arkansas that was subject to a charter, and in a short time, he knew more about the place than the people who lived there.”
The same traits have helped in Kelley’s adoption work. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Gene drop what he was doing and go help someone with an immediate need,” Gill says. “That’s very difficult to do, but it’s necessary. Especially in adoption work. When someone gives birth to a child, you drop what you’re doing and go.”
The Lawyer Rides a Tractor
Much of Gene and Joye Kelley’s adult lives have been focused on advancing the futures of their five children. The hard work has paid off. Their oldest daughter Jodie Kelley and son Glenn Kelley practice law with Gene at the Kelley Law Firm in Rogers. Another daughter, Ashley Kelley, is communications director for the Rogers School District; daughter Heather Ellington is director of development at Circle of Life Hospice in Springdale; and the couple’s youngest, Shelby Kelley, is a lawyer in Washington.
The home in which Kelley was reared was poor but full of love. He and Joye parlayed that into something more. “Joye and I worked hard to encourage our kids to make good grades and get into the best schools,” Kelley explains. “We did it so they’d know they can do the very best, and be the very best there is. “As I see it, each generation builds a plateau to help the next do a little better. I didn’t do as well as I could have in high school. I wasn’t conscientious enough. As a parent, I wanted to make sure my children had all the right tools to succeed.”
Kelley and Joye built their dream home 32 years ago on 110 acres east of Rogers. Their English Tudor-style house has a magnificent mountaintop view. Trails on the property wind through manicured gardens to a fabulous swimming pool. As head of the house, Kelley has done much of the work himself. The front-end loader on his tractor is his prized possession. If he wasn’t a lawyer, he says, he’d be a landscape designer. Ashley Kelley says her father loves to gaze around his home and envision something new. “In his backyard, or for the house, year after year, Dad’s always got something in the hopper,” she says. “He wants to resurrect the gazebo [which was blown over by a storm], and he’s looking at a kitchen expansion. He’ll do anything to fit more of his family in the dining room.” Friend Ron Palmer, former owner of AQ Chicken House, says Kelley transformed the Kelley Law Firm in downtown Rogers from an old computer shop. “He’s got a great sense of style, too,” says Palmer, who recently traveled in Italy with Kelley. “He likes to shop, and he likes to look good. Gene’s become quite the shopping guru. He’s a suit-and-tie kind of guy.”
In the future, Kelley plans to phase out his role in the social work aspect of private adoptions and focus more on the legal side. And he’s looking for new ways to contribute to the community. “Arkansas has been good to me,” Kelley says. “The people in this state have allowed me to do things I never could have done alone. Joye and I want to help the community and target a need. We have an eye on what’s good for the people.”