By Emily J. Minor
DELRAY BEACH — Francis P. Kelley, who all his adult life worked tirelessly for the
rights of the mentally handicapped and helped Eunice Shriver establish the
first games in the Special Olympics, died in his sleep at home in late April.
He had just turned 85.
“He was a great, great, great guy,” said Bette Kelley, his wife of nearly 31 years.
Bette and Fran Kelley retired to Delray Beach in 1998 and it was about this time that
John Butler, the executive director of the Delray Beach International Tennis
Championships, remembers meeting Fran Kelley. Mr. Kelley became an
inspirational part of Butler’s busy job.
Butler said they had just moved into their new headquarters near downtown Delray Beach
when Mr. Kelley came into the office and “kind of plopped himself down in a
Mr. Kelley, who loved playing tennis and being around tennis events, told Butler he
was there to make sure the courts were ready before and during every
“He just came in here and proceeded to tell me what he was going to do for me, and I’m a better man for it,” Butler said.
Mr. Kelley and his tennis compatriots became well known by fans and players at the
tennis center that features international matches with top names. “They almost
developed a rock star image,” Butler said.
The men who worked with Mr. Kelley preparing the courts — everything from providing
water for the umpires to cleaning up trash on the court after a match — became
known as Frank Kelley and his Court Crusaders. About a year ago, when Mr.
Kelley was in failing health and unable to volunteer, they changed the name to
Frank Kelley’s Court Crusaders.
Butler said it was “a heartbreaking time for all of us” when Mr. Kelley stopped coming
to the tennis center. Until reading an obituary detailing Mr. Kelley’s life’s
work, Butler said he had no idea about Mr. Kelley’s accomplishments.
“It’s a little overwhelming just knowing the type of guy we had working here,” Butler said.
Bette Kelley said her husband’s sister was a social worker and that her work with the
mentally handicapped inspired Mr. Kelley. After serving in World War II — he
signed up when he was just 17, his wife said — Mr. Kelley earned two master’s
degrees from Columbia University and spent his professional life working for
the rights of the challenged. He lobbied for new laws, fought for clean,
affordable housing, filed lawsuits against institutions that neglected
patients, and worked with several White House administrations establishing
equal rights for the mentally ill.
He is survived by his wife, Bette, six children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He is also survived by that iconic group of aging men known as Kelley’s Court Crusaders.