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Veteran of Valor: Garren Kelley

Posted on October 05, 2021

If you have a veteran in your family, particularly one who served during war time, it is likely you have not heard them speak much about their service.

Perhaps it is because the memories are too horrific or in some cases too difficult to revisit. How can civilians ever truly understand what happened “over there” or what happened to the psyche of our loved ones?

Michael Kelley sits among the photographs and medals that exemplify his father Garen Kelley’s war experience. Among these prestigious decorations are a Bronze Star with Valor and two Purple Hearts. Bronze Stars are for meritorious service in the line of fire, putting themselves at great risk of being killed, and “with valor” means he should have been killed. Purple Hearts are awarded in the name of the President of the United States to those wounded or killed while serving. “My father served from 1941 to 1945,” Michael conveys. “He was shot twice, once while in Tinian in 1944 and once while in Okinawa in 1945. He had shrapnel in his back his whole life.”

Michael recalls the one story his father did share about surviving his years in the 2nd Marine Division. “He was on the upper deck of the hospital ship where there was one wounded soldier after another. The priest and the doctor came around checking each man to see if any men were worth medical attention. When they got to my father the doctor said, “Forget about this one – he’s too far gone.” But as they started to walk away, my father grabbed the priest on the wrist! Because he did that, they knew he had the strength to receive care.”

“Traveling around the world at such a young age, and witnessing what he did, his service gave him a life-long guide of what to do every day; to always do the right thing.”

Private Kelley was honorably discharged in 1945, and his military training set the stage for the man and businessman he would become. “My father never went to college, so the military taught him how to be a man,” Michael speaks of his father with reverence. “Traveling around the world at such a young age, and witnessing what he did, his service gave him a life-long guide of what to do every day; to always do the right thing.”

And do the right thing he did. Garen went on to work in West Virginia as a construction foreman and then an iron-worker for Hunkin-Conkey Construction Company before being transferred to Cleveland. Here, he was a steel superintendent, overseeing all jobs throughout Cleveland and Pennsylvania that involved steel erection, machinery setting and heavy rigging. With this knowledge, Garen founded Kelley Steel Erectors, Inc. when he was 36 years old. His first job was a McDonald’s restaurant on Warrensville Center Road, and for 25 years, he built every Powerhouse along Lake Erie and along the Ohio River. Today, Kelley’s work is visible throughout Cleveland including the Cleveland State University Library Tower, the IMG Building and the 46-story BP Building in Public Square.

Before Garen passed away in 2008, father and son had the opportunity to work together on another unique project. The Kelley family monument in Lake View Cemetery. On a cold winter’s day in 1996, Garen, Michael, and members of Kelley Steel erected the beautiful obelisk that looms majestically inside the Mayfield Gates at the start of Section 10. Given what Garen and his family did to build the city of Cleveland, it is fitting that their final resting place should be in the company of John L. Severance and John D Rockefeller.

A man of deep faith, Garen was also a life-long supporter of Catholic Charities, the Legionnaires of Christ and Passionist Missions, the American Red Cross, as well as other pinnacles of Cleveland like the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Western Reserve Historical Society to name a few.

In 1981, Garen’s generosity was rewarded when he received the honor of being inducted by Terence Cardinal Cooke at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City as a Knight of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, a lay Catholic religious order established in the 11th century.

Sixty-two years later, Kelley Steel forges on with Michael now at the helm. “My father was a great example for me of hard work and pride in your work,” Michael’s voice softens as he reflects on the family business. “When you’re raised risking your life every day walking iron and climbing columns with all these tough guys, you grow up with a different mind-set.” He takes a pause, looking at his father’s medals once again. “My father was very proud to be a Marine, and I’m very proud to be an iron-worker; - and carrying on all of the family businesses.”


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