Richard R. Kelley, Dec. 28, 1933 – Feb. 24, 2022

February 24 will long be remembered as the day when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Awful as I feel about this appalling act of aggression in a part of the world of great interest to me, February 24, 2022, will for me also be the date of a more personal loss.

It’s the day when Dr. Richard R. Kelley, a longtime friend, collaborator and, in many ways, mentor, passed away after a two-decade-long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

I’ve blogged about Dr. Kelley before — at the time of the December 2016 sale of Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, the company he long headed, and which I helped him chronicle, and again just four months ago, shortly after the publication of his book, Paddling the Outrigger, which he entrusted me to edit.

Today I share his obituary, whose draft I was asked to create in the weeks before he passed away.

Richard Roy Kelley, M.D., December 28, 1933 – February 24, 2022

After a determined two-decade-long struggle “to not let Parkinson’s disease get the best of [him],” Dr. Richard R. Kelley passed away on February 24, 2022, at age 88. For most of the past half century, Dr. Kelley – who long headed Outrigger Hotels and Resorts – was the most tireless, articulate, and visionary champion of Hawai‘i’s visitor industry. He was arguably the single most consequential figure in the local hospitality industry’s growth, development and endurance, setting the state apart as a global top-tier tourism destination.

The road that Dr. Kelley – also an accomplished medical doctor – took to become a legend in Hawai‘i’s business community was uncharted.

The eldest child of Hawai‘i’s pioneering hoteliers, Roy and Estelle Kelley, Richard’s perseverance propelled him to conquer dyslexia, eventually leading him to graduate from Stanford University and Harvard Medical School.

While Richard grew up working in his parents’ hotels – hauling luggage up five flights of stairs, serving pineapple juice in the courtyard, and balancing spreadsheets into the wee hours – he enjoyed his years as a pathologist at The Queen’s Hospital until his father lured him with a request for much-needed “part-time, temporary” assistance in the family’s hotel business.

Manning the front desk

As his parents eased toward retirement, Richard found himself picking up the reins, modernizing a company that had outstripped the capacity of mom-and-pop management and growing it into a global corporation.

In the following four decades, Richard led Outrigger to its place as Hawai‘i’s largest and most diverse hotel company.

For his unflagging, uphill effort to spearhead the creation of a convention center in Waikīkī – which opened in 1994 after 15 years of his never-say-die leadership – the Sales & Marketing Executives of Honolulu honored Richard as Sales Person of the Year and “Father of the Convention Center.”

For years, Richard wrote and spoke out about the importance of tourism to Hawai‘i’s economy. His mantra was, “In Hawai‘i, Tourism Is Everybody’s Business.” He repeatedly entreated the state’s politicians to boost state funding of tourism marketing and refrain from excessively taxing visitors. Under his direction, Outrigger heavily underwrote a series of four studies – 1996-1999 – by the London-headquartered World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), that detailed the visitor industry’s impact on Hawai‘i’s economy. In 1998, he played a critical role on the Governor’s Economic Development Task Force, whose recommendation to substantially boost funding for visitor industry marketing proved key to ending the state’s decade-long economic slump.

Richard chaired the Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau and Hawai‘i Business Roundtable, and served on the WTTC Executive Committee and the advisory board to the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus.

In 1994, Richard and key Outrigger executives had the first of many conversations with historian, author and educator George Hu‘eu Sanford Kanahele about the special role that Hawaiian culture and values ought to play in the Islands’ visitor industry. From the understanding Richard gained from these conversations – about how Hawaiian culture can set local hospitality apart from that of other tourist destinations – grew the values that Outrigger adopted: Ke ‘Ano Wa‘a (The Outrigger Way – Kīnā‘ole, Kaulike, A‘o, Nā Mea Ho‘okipa, ‘Ohana, Wahi, Kuleana and Aloha). Richard believed that employees’ understanding and sharing of Hawaiian culture, history and values would enrich their experience as hosts and create a more meaningful, respectful, and memorable guest experience.

Beyond his efforts to strengthen Hawai‘i’s visitor industry and economy, Richard’s public spiritedness found outlets in initiatives and philanthropy in health, the environment and education. In the early 1990s, he poured considerable energy into chairing the state’s Commission on Performance Standards for public school students.

A prolific writer, Richard recently completed and published Paddling the Outrigger: Inspiration and Insights From the Journey of a Lifetime, a partially autobiographical work that mainly focuses on many of the articles on a wide range of topics that he wrote over the last four decades of his career.

Most importantly, Richard was deeply loved by his large family as someone who enjoyed puns, naughty limericks, and talking story. It was always about making people laugh, feel valued and appreciated. He was an all-around waterman who spent years of his life surfing, sailing and fishing. He once won an award for the smallest fish caught in a billfish tournament.

He was a committed family man who loved spending time with family and friends. He was never too busy to pen an email or pick up his phone to talk to his kids, even if he was in the middle of a meeting. Richard was committed to education for all, and an early adopter of technology. He loved teaching at all levels, from running drills on Latin on the way to school with his kids, to supporting scholarships and guest teaching at several universities.

Surrounded by their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Richard and Linda Kelley celebrate his 80th birthday, December 2013.

Richard died in Denver, where he lived with his wife, Linda, since 1993. He is survived by his wife Linda V. Kelley, sister Jean Rolles, seven children: Kathryn Carey (David), Dr. Chuck Kelley (Jenny), Linda Jane Kelley, Elizabeth “Bitsy” Kelley (Greg), Colleen Kelley Heyer (Judd), Christopher Kelley, Anne Marie Kelley Brown (Matt), 15 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife, Jane Zieber Kelley, and his sister Patricia Kelley.

With Linda

I deeply admired Dr. Kelley. I got to know him while I was on the staff of CommPac, Hawaii’s oldest and most respected public relations agency. In 2003 my boss, Kitty Yannone, asked me to take over the editing of his weekly Saturday Briefing (newsletter) articles. I continued editing them right through the end of 2016, when, with the sale of Outrigger, he put down his pen.

Editing Dr. Kelley’s articles — and later, the draft of Paddling the Outrigger — was greatly enjoyable work, usually the highlight of my week. What a pleasure it was to confer with him, particularly when our frequent conversations turned to common interests in world and national affairs, history and economic issues.

Although our backgrounds were entirely different, at some level Dr. Kelley always felt to me like a kindred spirit. I know I am but one of many, doubtless hundreds, of people who knew this fascinating, smart, generous, good-natured — and modest — man well and who will dearly miss him.

Dr. Kelley with Howard and his wife Sandra

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