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Thursday, June 24, 2021
NEWS  |  CAMPUS

Former UF public relations professor Kathleen Kelly dies at 77

The professor had a lasting impact on many people’s lives worldwide and transformed the way public relations is practiced in the industry nowadays.

Photo courtesy of the department of public relations
Photo courtesy of the department of public relations

As a professor and prolific researcher who inspired countless students in Weimer Hall, Kathleen Kelly helped reshape how public relations is practiced today by introducing the nonprofit sector into the field of study through her love for research.

Kelly, who was a former UF public relations professor and advisor for mass communication Ph.D. students, died April 28 in her St. Augustine condo at 77.

“She had a passion for teaching and for research that was contagious, and she was genuinely interested in people and building relationships,” Christopher Wilson, a 46-year-old associate professor at Brigham Young University, said. “Who she was made everything else that she did better. It made her research, work, and it made her teaching effective and memorable.”

She had been struggling with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a severe inflammatory lung disease that causes airflow blockage and breathing issues, according to the UF College of Journalism and Communications article.

Kelly is survived by her husband of 60 years, George F. Kelly, daughter Jodie Anne Funderburk, granddaughters Sarah and Catherine Levy, brother Russell Mehram Jr. and many cousins, nieces, nephews, close friends, students and professional associates, according to the UF CJC article.

She retired from the UF CJC in 2019. During her nearly 16 years at UF, Kelly taught and advised public relations students and served as the public relations department chair during her last three years in the college. 

Her influence within the public relations industry was not limited to UF, as her work and research reached many people across the nation. 

Richard Waters, 45, associate professor in the school of management at the University of San Francisco, said Kelly’s knowledge and dedication for why public relations principles worked in fundraising motivated him to get his Ph.D. with her at UF. He was Kelly’s first doctoral advisee.

“I would never have pursued studying nonprofits and nonprofit communication if it wasn't for her,” Waters said. “She was one of the most influential person in defining public relations for me.”

In her research, Kelly focused on organization-public relationships. Particularly looking at donor relations, which led her to produce 70 articles, book chapters, monographs, referred papers, and author of two award-winning books on fundraising, one being the first academic textbook, “Effective Fun-Raising Management.”

She was the recipient of the 2004 PRSA Outstanding Educator Award, the PRSA Foundation’s Jackson, Jackson and Wagner Behavioral Science Prize in 1999, and the Institute for Public Relations’ 1995 Pathfinder Award, three of the highest awards in public relations teaching and research for her years of work.

She ultimately revolutionized the public relations field of study by expanding and elevating the college’s curriculum and emphasized the importance of fundraising as a specialization in public relations.

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Kelly received her bachelor’s in journalism and news-editorial, master’s in journalism and public relations, and Ph.D. in public mass communications with a specialization in public relations at the University of Maryland.

Prior to coming to UF, she taught at the University of Maryland for five years and was a professor and coordinator of the public relations program at the University of Louisiana for 10 years, where she held a research professorship.

Kelly was also an elected member of Public Relations Society of American’s (PRSA) College of Fellows and member of the Arthur W. Page Society, an invitation-only, professional association made up of notable figures in some of the world’s largest, leading corporations and public relations agencies.

“She's kind of one of those people where you don't want to let them down,” Wilson said. “Her standards and her expectations were so high that every time I would go to meet with her, it's like, man, I don't want to let Kathleen down.”

Although she was extremely meticulous, especially with writing, she was a strong advocate and supporter to her students.

Weiting Tao, 34, assistant professor in strategic communication at the University of Miami, said she will never forget the support she felt as an international graduate student in Kelly’s public relations fundamentals class.

Tao holds onto a vivid memory of the day she ran into Kelly while rushing through Weimer Hall worried about her applications to a Ph.D. program.

“She asked me if, ‘Did you hear any good news?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I'm still waiting.’ And she said, ‘Oh you'll be fine, I spent like five hours writing the recommendation letter and that’s never happened before. I usually spend that much time to write a book or anything but not a recommendation letter so you'll definitely get in,’” Tao said.

For Wilson, Kelly was not only his advisor when pursuing his Ph.D., but a friend to his family who had moved to Gainesville.

“She was as worried about our enjoyment of Gainesville, our kind of experience and our well-being as people, just as much as she was about my personal academic progress,” Wilson said. 

Kelly’s charismatic personality and passion was not only reflected in her work and teachings in the classroom, but also in her wardrobe. 

“Her style of clothing is still very memorable, even to this point,” Tao said. 

She often wore colorful monochrome outfits and accessories, and every year in the Spring for Mardi Gras, Waters said she would wear a large, brightly colored hat that resembled a Kentucky Derby or Sunday church hat.

“It's just such a thing that is so tied to her,” Waters said. “I have actually ordered one of those to hang up in my office in San Francisco by my UF diploma to honor her.”

Waters said he is currently working on a paper with a team of UF doctoral graduates for a research journal, and upon hearing of Kelly’s passing, they decided to dedicate their work to her.

“It was something that very shocked and saddened me, but it was empowering at the same time because we are going to honor her in that way,” Waters said.

Wilson said he has a number of pictures that rotate as his wallpaper on his computer, one of them being a picture of his family and Kelly on his graduation day.

“I've had it up for a while and now it pops up every couple of days, and it's just, it's sad to know she's gone, but at the same time, I feel really blessed that she was a part of our lives,” Wilson said.

Contact Camila Pereira at cpereira@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @CamilaSaPereira.

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