This I Believe

Kelly, John B.


  • John Kelly tells the story of his disqualification from the Diamond Sculls rowing competition for having apprenticed as a bricklayer and the resulting hope to meet Beresford, the Diamond Sculls champion, in the Olympics to compete against him for the Gold Medal. Kelly concludes that he believes his failures are the most important memories he holds.
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And now, This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Sometimes people forget the nobility of honest toil. John B. Kelly started life as a bricklayer. Today, his Philadelphia firm is the largest bricklaying company in the country. But Jack Kelly is best known as a sportsman and athlete. He is perhaps the most famous oarsman in the history of that sport. He has won the amateur championship in every phase of sculling, including the Olympics. Against a brilliant career in business and public service, and as a father of four grown children, Mr. Kelly now probes the core of his convictions.
Back in 1920, I was all set to go to England to compete in the Diamond Sculls race. I had won
all the major sculling titles in the United States, and to me, a chance to compete in the Diamond had become the most important thing in my life. For years, I had been pointing for it. Then on the dock, just a few hours before I was to sail, I received a cable. It said I had been disqualified. The reason, while never officially announced, was because I had served an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, and the stewards felt that a man who worked with his hands had an advantage over a gentleman. This was the bitterest disappointment I have ever had. Nothing would console me then. "Whatever is, is best," my father said. But I refused to believe it.
It happened that the Olympic Games were to be held in Antwerp that same year, and although the United
States had never before sent crews to compete in the rowing events, it was announced one day that Olympic trials would be held for American entries at Worcester, Massachusetts. Here was new hope. I could win the trials, represent the United States at Antwerp, and with luck, meet a lad named Beresford, who had won the Diamond, for which I had been denied the right to compete. He would be England’s Olympic entry. Here was a chance to get even.
I won at Worcester, and sailed for Belgium a few days later. What I wanted most of all was to meet Beresford in the finals. I guess it was presumptuous, but I mentioned the matter to God. I have always said prayers every night and every morning. I make it a kind of talk with Him. Well, this time I laid
out my plan very carefully. I explained that if He would have Beresford’s name drawn in the opposite bracket to mine--we both won all our heats--then we must meet in the final.
In view of the ten years work I had put into preparation for the Diamond, only to have my entry rejected, I didn’t think I was asking too much if he would arrange the draw. The rest would be up to me. That was how it turned out. Beresford was drawn in the upper bracket, and I was in the lower one. We moved steadily toward each other through the eliminations. I remember well the night before the championship. In the semifinal, I had beaten Hatfield of New Zealand, the favorite for the title, and Beresford had beaten Eichen of Holland. When I went to bed, the stars were shining brightly through the
open window. "Thank you, God," I said. "You won’t hear another word from me. You have done your part. It’s up to me, tomorrow."
I beat Beresford the next day, and the victory was sweeter than if I had won the Diamond alone. Looking back today, I don’t mean to suggest that God, Himself, interceded in that draw. But I believe that life has a mysterious way of balancing the books. Success and prosperity can sometimes hurt a person more than adversity. Without that first abysmal disappointment, I might never have won. Beethoven once said, when he lay near death, that of all the experience he had in his career, if he had to give up all the memories but one, he would keep his disappointments because they taught him most. This I really
That was John B. Kelly, Philadelphia civic leader and sportsman. As a footnote to the incident he has just told, he stood on the banks of the Thames twenty years later and watched his son Jack, Jr. win the Diamond Sculls from which he had been barred.