Park place

Mike Kelly ’93 improves Chicago’s green space as the general superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District

By Ellen Liebenguth ’17

As a Jesuit university, John Carroll prides itself on graduating men and women for and with others. One such alumnus who embodies this motto is Michael Kelly ’93, who’s dedicated to serving his hometown of Chicago. Kelly, the general superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District, is in charge of about 600 parks used by more than 41 million people annually.

Kelly’s route to this position began when he visited the John Carroll campus during a football recruitment visit, after which he says he knew JCU was the right university for him, mainly because of the school spirit and closeness of those on campus.

During his time at Carroll, Kelly played linebacker and tackle for the football team through which he met many lifelong friends, many of whom he has stayed in touch with.

“With the exception of my roommates, there weren’t a lot Chicagoans from the Southside at JCU,” he says. “But it was a great experience because I was able to meet and be exposed to people from all over. Everyone at Carroll was happy, friendly, and comfortable with one another.”

The Kelly family

The Kelly family

In addition to establishing connections, Kelly discovered his passion for government at Carroll. Originally, he intended to major in biology, but by his second semester, he knew he wanted to study political science and communication, which led him to a career in government, in which he has worked for 21 years.

After earning his undergraduate degree in political science, Kelly returned to Chicago and worked several jobs that involved community building, including a newspaper stringer covering local high school sports, a youth social worker, and an office manager and phone bank coordinator for one of Richard M. Daley’s re-election campaigns. In 2001, he graduated from the DePaul University College of Law with his J.D.

“Starting my career in social work was invaluable because I was able to see firsthand what it was,” he says. “I was able to go into communities and connect youth with resources.”

Kelly’s passion for service led him to join the Chicago Park District in 2003 as director of intergovernmental and community affairs, first deputy general counsel and chief operating officer. In 2011, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Kelly to general superintendent and CEO. Kelly has dedicated himself to improving the city’s parks and the quality of life for residents.

Kelly has had the privilege of building several crown jewels in his five years as CEO. These include Maggie Daley Park, Northerly Island, the 606, and four river boathouses.

Opened in 2014, the family-centered Maggie Daley Park, the former site of the Daley Bicentennial Plaza, was designed in honor of Maggie Daley, the wife of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who passed away five years ago. Maggie Daley was committed to improving the lives of children and making the city culturally rich for all its citizens. The lakefront recreation center includes a 3-acre playground called the Play Garden and a one-of-a-kind, quarter-mile skating rink.

Northerly Island Park, once an airstrip, is dedicated to the preservation of nature. The northern 45 acres of the 90-acre peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan is used as a venue for events; the other half is a nature reserve. The revenue from the events on the northern half of the peninsula pay for the preservation of the wildlife of the southern half.

“We have to reconnect people with nature for health and wellness,” Kelly says.

Kelly’s third major project, the 606, is a park and trail system that connects four neighborhoods. Its development was centralized around restoring parts of the city blighted by manufacturing. One example of such restoration is the conversion of abandoned rail tracks into a 3-mile-long trail on which people can walk and bike. Kelly calls this rail to trail.

Kelly also led a playground restoration project that improved 327 playgrounds throughout the parks of Chicago in four years. The district is the largest provider of aftercare and after-school programs, which serve almost a 100,000 children each year and thousands more through playgrounds.

“Playgrounds are important because they’re places where people bring their children and socialize,” he says. “Playgrounds have a profound impact on communities. Strong parks build strong communities.”

Kelly and his staff have high-profile projects in the pipeline. Currently, he’s collaborating on a golf course with Tiger Woods, planning the Obama Presidential Library at Jackson Park, and unveiling a sculpture by popular contemporary artist and famed wife of John Lennon, Yoko Ono.

Despite his busy career, Kelly always finds time to connect with Carroll students and alumni. His college experience shaped him and his career.

“It made me well rounded as I developed many interests in life,” he says. “My personal outlook fits perfectly with John Carroll’s Jesuit education because it challenged me to be strong in all disciplines.” JCU

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