Norfolk attorney Walter Kelley elected board rector

The new rector of the Board of Visitors grew up just a few blocks from campus and, although he earned his degrees elsewhere, has closely followed the university's progress over the years.

A staunch supporter of higher education and one committed to civic duty, he readily accepted when Gov. Gilmore asked him earlier this year to serve on the board.

"I was very interested in doing it because of the huge influence that Old Dominion has on the Hampton Roads community," said Walter D. Kelley Jr., a partner with the Norfolk law firm of Willcox & Savage. "In an era of an information- and knowledge-based economy, the role of a university cannot be overstated - either from the standpoint of how important it is for the students, but also as an economic development engine for the area."

He noted that, while it may be a few years away, Old Dominion is uniquely positioned to have the same sort of catalytic effect on Hampton Roads as Stanford University has had on the Silicon Valley.

Kelley, 45, was elected rector Sept. 14, after having been on the board only 2 1/2 months. Nevertheless, he is confident in his ability to lead the board over the next two years.

He has served as president (1992-93) and director (1986-96) of the Washington & Lee Law Alumni Association and since 1990 has been a trustee of Norfolk Collegiate School. Earlier this year he completed a three-year chairmanship of the Republican Party of Norfolk.

Kelley said at the Sept. 14 board meeting that one of the board's greatest challenges, initially, will be more internal than external. "We need to get on the same page regarding methods of how to advance the university." Kelley was elected rector by a 9-6 vote of the board, edging out Elizabeth W. Atkinson, a member with two years' service on the board.

And how will the board - and the university - benefit from such a new member serving as rector?

"I guess the best way of addressing that is 'Unusual circumstances call for unusual responses,'" Kelley replied. "It's clear that there are substantial disagreements on the board, principally as to process, but, I don't think, substantively."

Kelley said he has always practiced consensus building as his style of leadership, and believes the board will need to work together as a team to aid in a smooth transition when Roseann Runte succeeds James V. Koch as president next July.

Kelley said the role of the board is to act as fiduciaries for the citizens of Virginia and the university as a whole. "Obviously, to discharge that duty you have to know what's going on and the board has to act upon and approve broader issues that can fairly be classified as policy issues, as opposed to implementation issues."

Of the role of rector, Kelley noted in an Aug. 18 letter to fellow board member James S. Beamer, chair of the Nominating Committee, "Leadership requires knowing where you want to go, and I would envision advocating a global approach to the issues facing the university. However, advocacy does not have to be smothering or unilateral. At the end of the day, the job of rector is to carry out the wishes of the board, not vice versa."

Kelley also believes that he and other board members can help the university's cause in Richmond by meeting with state officials and legislators.

"The people appointed to the Board of Visitors are somewhat political creatures, not universally, but for the most part they tend to be active because they're the ones the governor knows. They're in a better position than most to not only understand how the legislative and executive branches work, but also to have the contacts to get a hearing."

Kelley, who jokingly refers to the practice of law as his day job and politics, his night job, served for a short time as a congressional press secretary on Capitol Hill after earning his bachelor's degree at Washington & Lee University. After obtaining his law degree at W&L, he served for a year as a law clerk with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, but decided that living in the big city was not what he wanted and returned to Norfolk. He stayed out of politics for the first eight years after joining Willcox & Savage in 1982, focusing on building his practice. "But then I kind of backslid," he said with a laugh.

Still, practicing business litigation law is what Kelley enjoys doing most, and he has no aspirations toward elective office (it's a promise he made to his wife before they were married). But he can't help but keep his hands in the political process.

"If you really believe strongly in how it is you think government should act with the citizenry ... you can't sit on the sidelines and not be in the game. You're either in there trying to make happen that which you believe in, or you're ceding the whole debate to the other side."

Of Kelley's many civic activities, however, it is his work with the Hampton Roads board of the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center that has been most gratifying. He chaired the board from 1994-98 and continues to serve as a director.

"The branch of the Salvation Army I am involved in takes people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs and places them in a work therapy program. My chairmanship of that branch was by far the most rewarding to me because we were able to make such an incredible difference in people's lives, helping them get control of their lives and become productive citizens."

Between the many hours he devotes to his day and night jobs, and spending time with his wife and three children, Kelley has little free time for hobbies. He would like to get back to sailing one day, but for now he has yet another volunteer duty on his plate - serving a two-year term as rector of the Old Dominion Board of Visitors.

"Obviously, I've got a lot to learn, and I'm going to roll up my sleeves and get into it in a very systematic and aggressive fashion," he said. "I'm very excited about it. It's a marvelous opportunity to make a difference for the community and the university." TOP