NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of the grand marshal of the St. Patrick's Day Parade, a man who has been honored as one of the top Irish-American businessmen on Wall Street, Denis Kelleher.
Denis Kelleher is getting ready for a good walk, and millions will be watching. That’s because Kelleher, a New Yorker born and bred in county Kerry, Ireland, is the grand marshal of this year's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
“It has been a dream of every Irishman to lead the parade, and I'm certainly delighted they chose me,” he says. “I don't know why. I'm sure they had many better candidates, but I'm not going to turn it down."
Kelleher talks about dreaming big, but if someone had told him about all of this when he came here from the old country in 1958, he would have said: “Are you crazy? Not in my wildest dreams."
But Denis Kelleher's life seems like a page out of the American dream. He's the Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and founder of Wall Street Access, a leading money management company. Irish America magazine honored him as one of the top Irish-American businessmen on Wall Street, and he is included in the book "Greatest Irish-Americans of the 20th Century."
"I say, ÎThank God it's Monday,’ rather than, ÎThank God it's Friday,’ still," he says. "i have a friend that says you should retire five or 10 years after we're dead, and I kind of subscribe to that theory.”
But there's an ironic twist to Kelleher's success; it might not have happened here had he been a better student growing up in Ireland. He says back in Ireland, the number one kid in class would often go into teaching, number two would go into banking, and number three would go into something called creamery managing.
Kelleher was number three.
"You would take the milk from the farmers coming in in the morning, you’d weigh it, separate it and give out some back milk, as they called it, to be given to the hogs and things like that,” he says. “The prospect of that was not appealing.”
A professor introduced Kelleher to the idea of compound interest, and a lifelong appreciation for the stock market was born.
Kelleher has been able to return the favor. He's part of a committee of Irish-American businessmen that advises the Irish government. It started in the early 1980’s, when Ireland's economy was struggling.
Now Ireland is among the most prosperous nations in Europe. It's quite a journey from growing up poor in a small Irish town to sitting in with the prime minister.
"Well yes, that does occur to me,” Kelleher says. “For a poor boy from Guinneve Guila, this worked out OK.”
Kelleher says he is not a political person and doesn't enjoy controversy. But there is controversy each year at the St. Patrick's Day Parade, with protests from an Irish lesbian and gay organization.
Court cases in the 90's ruled that the group could march in the parade, but without its banner, which the organization has likened to being pushed back in the closet.
I asked Kelleher about the situation this year, and he responded: “I believe the issue has been put to bed, adjudicated in the courts. There certainly has never been - that I know of - any prohibition of anybody that is gay or lesbian marching in the parade. It was that they couldn't have their own banner, and that extends to a lot of groups."
Among the pictures in Kelleher's office is a photograph with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in the middle. Kelleher hosted Adams on Wall Street back in the late 90's, and spoke to him about his father, who served in the old IRA, fighting for the Irish Republic in 1916.
Kelleher calls his father's medal from the Irish government his most prized family possession.
“He made a statement to me that kind of captured my imagination, that things could become better,” he says. “He said the people that suffered the most were the quickest to forgive, and I thought that there was something to that.”
Denis Kelleher's downtown office overlooks the Statue of Liberty and Battery Park, and sits in the heart of international commerce. It's a long way from his hometown in county Kerry.
“It's a place called Guinneve Guila - that's a very hard name to pronounce,” he says. “The Gaelic means, Îa piece and a half of land.’ There may have been 20 houses in village, and my father was shoemaker."
The day we spoke was the 50th anniversary of the passing of his father. Kelleher was only 15 at the time.
"He was so dedicated in taking care of his family that he would get up and go to England during the war and sleep pretty much under a table all those years, just to take care of his family,” he says. “And he did.”
A few years later, Kelleher came to America, much like previous generations of immigrants, for a better life. He says there were many Irish immigrants arriving in New York in the 50’s.
“We had a bachelor apartment with four other friends, and we had a great time,” he says. “We went to the Irish dance halls on weekends. You had a lot of people who you interfaced with, and little by little we became more integrated, if you will, with the rest of the community."
Kelleher served in the U.S. Army, and became a U.S. citizen. He went to St. John's University as a night student; he now chairs their board of directors.
At his Staten Island home, there are awards reflecting New York's diversity and Kelleher's charity work here. There’s a menorah from a Jewish group, and a statue from an African-American group.
And, of course, there are reminders of the old country. At his office, he has a painting of the Irish writer James Joyce.
"He was not allowed to be read when I was growing up,” Kelleher says. “His books were banned in Ireland. They’ve come a long way since then. He’s actually revered now in Ireland, but 50 years ago, no.”
At his home, there’s a picture of the house Kelleher bought in Ireland. But this is no ordinary vacation place.
Kelleher says the land was confiscated by the British in 1592, so when he bought the house in the early 80’s, he was buying a little piece of history.
“It's the first native Irish to own it since 1592, so I think that says something," he says. "There is a certain amount of pride in being able to have it, and again, I would hope that it's controlled pride.”
Kelleher is 65, and he's been married to his wife Carol for 39 years. They have three children, seven grandchildren, and the respect of peers here and back in Ireland.
But like so many on Wall Street and throughout New York, Kelleher was scarred by the events of September 11, 2001. He and his family were actually flying back from a wedding in Italy when their plane was diverted to Newfoundland in Canada.
They quickly realized the scope of the tragedy, and the extent of their own personal loss.
“Then my son recognized that his best friend was in it,” he says.
The Kelleher’s lost 20 friends on 9/11. The pain of that loss is still obvious.
But these are happier days for Denis Kelleher, preparing to take a celebrated walk after a life in America he never could have envisioned.
"I've lived a charmed life, I have to tell you. It's been just wonderful," he says. “You dream big, work hard, learn constantly and have fun."
- Budd Mishkin