John Kelly '84 of the Washington Post Remembers Time at UMD

March 25, 2014

On April 8, the University welcomes back John Kelly ’84 as the keynote speaker at Access2Alumni. An English department alumnus, Kelly was the recipient of the 2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the College of Arts and Humanities. Kelly writes “John Kelly’s Washington,” for the Washington Post, a column that ruminates on the District’s citizens, quirks, and considerable history. 

In his October 27 article, “The cool, crisp air produces smells that dogs seem to love sniffing,” Kelly gave a shout-out to his alma mater: 

“I have nothing against journalism majors — some of my best friends are journalism majors — but I am proud to receive this honor tonight under the auspices of the College of Arts and Humanities. I was an English major, and there’s no better preparation for a life spent writing than four years spent reading.

This can be hazardous, for there’s nothing more dangerous than literature. In fact, after taking a class at Maryland called “Existentialism and the Absurd” I spent an entire weekend curled up on the couch of my Langley Park apartment, overwhelmed by the sheer pointlessness of life. Good times.

As Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Words are loaded pistols.” Thank you to the University of Maryland College of Arts and Humanities for providing me with plenty of ammunition.”

Kelly is honored to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award and is looking forward to the keynote lecture to take place on April 8 at 4:00 pm in Orem Hall in the Samuel Riggs Alumni Center.  

As a student in the department, Kelly took a fiction writing class with Jack Salamanca. He hoped to become a novelist but after penning half a novel, realized it was more difficult than he initially thought. However, Kelly had a back-up plan. During his junior year, he had an internship in the publications department of a small Washington association. After graduation, Kelly spent a few months traveling around Europe unemployed before returning stateside and taking a job at his former internship. Here, he received a good grounding in editorial and publications, and performed odd jobs such as designing brochures. Kelly knew he wanted to be more creative, so he left his first job and took a position as a freelance writer. Kelly wrote freelance for the Washington Post until he was hired by the publication. 

While at Maryland, Kelly remembers taking a class with Charles Caramello on the modern American novel. He also remembers taking a class on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with his roommate--a radio, television, and film major. 

“We had a lot of fun pontificating about that,” said Kelly. “Just like Spinal Tap threatened to write a rock opera about Jack the Ripper – “Saucy Jack,” I believe it was going to be called – we’ve been meaning to write one about Sir Gawain and Co.”

Kelly believes that his English literature degree has aided him in his career. His studies in the department helped him write and read in a more critical way, and gave him the ability to take in information and parse it quickly— all valuable skills for his job. 

Kelly included, “Life isn’t just what you do for work, it’s how you interact with and enjoy the world around you. An English literature degree may not get you a job as a bank president, it is going to make you see the world differently, and it’s going to let you read and ponder a lot of interesting stuff.”

When asked about his time at the University, Kelly said,

“I always looked forward to going to my classes, well, most of my classes. If I’d done the reading – and I usually had – I had a wonderful sense of anticipation as my English classes began. I’d want to engage in discussion – class participation! – and could feel myself getting nervous as I bided my time, waiting for the right point to spring my amazing insight on the professor and my fellow students. It’s almost like that butterfly-stomached feeling you get before asking someone to dance. And then the dance itself was making my argument, defending it, responding to the viewpoints of others. I’m sure that happens in other classes, but given literature’s big and important themes, I have to think our discussions are the most sublime.”