Denis P. Kelleher
March 15, 1939 – November 22, 2019
Denis Kelleher, 80, an Irish immigrant and self-made Wall Street giant, who embodied the American dream, died Friday in his Todt Hill home. Mr. Kelleher, who grew up in a small, impoverished village in County Kerry, was known as a humble, generous, but quiet benefactor to many individuals and diverse causes, ranging from immigration, to education, the Catholic Church, and the Staten Island community. A native of Gneeveguilla, Rathmore, in County Kerry, his father, Michael, who died when Mr. Kelleher was 15, was a shoemaker. His mother, Abbey, was an inveterate reader who expected her son to continue his formal education. She also instilled in him the value of working hard and the importance of giving back to the community. Mr. Kelleher trundled off to boarding school at age 11 where he became enamored of a professor “who introduced me to the magic of compounding. We would discuss the stock exchange in math class," he explained in a 2005 Advance interview. Discussions he would supplement by studying the world of finance as reported in Time magazine, which he would purchase and read after class. Later, when Mr. Kelleher graduated from St. Brendan’s College in nearby Killarney, jobs were hard to come by, save for a position in a local creamery. Making an “economic decision,” Mr. Kelleher opted to emigrate to the United States to continue his education and, as it turned out, lay claim to his fortune. Mr. Kelleher arrived in the United States in 1958, with little more than the clothes on his back. Fascinated by the beauty of the city skyline and the Statue of Liberty as he entered New York Harbor, he knew he had made the right choice, he would later say. He settled in Brooklyn, with help from an uncle who had come before him. Later he moved to the North Bronx, home to a large Irish-American community. The day after he arrived in New York, Mr. Kelleher interviewed with Merrill Lynch and got his first job as a messenger, or runner, for the brokerage house. While he was working he also took night classes at St. John’s University, graduating with a degree in marketing and finance in 1965. In between working and studying, he took two years off to serve his country in the Army, from 1960 to 1962. He was assigned to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Not long after he returned to civilian life and his career on Wall Street, Mr. Kelleher became chief executive officer of Ruane, Cunniff & Company, a member of the New York Stock Exchange. The company is best known in the financial industry as the advisor and distributor of Sequoia Fund, for which he served as president and treasurer. While he was forging ahead with his career in the financial industry, Mr. Kelleher would meet his future wife, the former Carol Cieslewicz, on a blind date. They married in 1966. The couple moved to Staten Island and lived in Great Kills for 10 years, relocating to Emerson Hill, and then to Todt Hill in 1988. In 1976 he founded Discount Brokerage Corporation, also a member of the Stock Exchange, and served as its CEO. Mr. Kelleher also founded his own financial services company, Wall Street Access, in 1981, a money management and stock brokerage firm and a member of the New York Stock Exchange, that today also includes Kelleher Financial Advisors, a wealth management service led by Kelleher’s daughter, Colleen Kelleher Sorrentino. “My father was a larger-than-life figure who touched the lives of many through his business success and commitment to giving back to the community. He embodied the American entrepreneurial spirit, bringing integrity, dedication, and experience to work every day to drive our success," said his son, Sean Kelleher, who succeeded his father as president and CEO of Wall Street Access. “He took to heart the idea that with education and hard honest work anyone can realize the American dream,” he said. Despite his financial success, Mr. Kelleher never forgot his roots and humble beginnings. Along the way, Mr. Kelleher’s community involvement and charitable contributions became legendary on Staten Island and distinguished him as a true giant in the Irish-American community, as well. FOOTPRINT ON ST. JOHN’S Mr. Kelleher served as chairman of the board of trustees of St. John’s University and was key in funding the $5.4 million Kelleher Center on the Staten Island campus atop Grymes Hill. He was also an affiliate of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) that sponsors St. John’s, “a rare distinction bestowed on members of the laity,” according to the university. “The story of Denis Kelleher is the story of St. John’s, indeed it is the story of America,” said St. John’s University spokesman Brian Browne. "Denis was a man of faith, a proud son of Ireland and a great character in the enduring story of St. John’s. While he achieved great professional success, Denis never strayed from his humble roots and was a generous philanthropist who supported the Catholic Church, countless charities and often did so in a quiet and unassuming manner.” “The Kelleher Center at the Staten Island Campus bears his family name but his giant footprints are left all over St. John’s at campuses in Queens, Paris, and Rome. The entire family of St. John’s University and the Vincentian Community mourns the passing of Denis Kelleher and prays for his beloved wife Carol and children Denis, Sean, and Colleen.” PARADE GRAND MARSHAL Mr. Kelleher also served on the boards of directors of Independence Community Bank and the New Ireland Fund, as well as the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Inc. In 2005, Mr. Kelleher was thrilled and honored to serve as Grand Marshal of the famed St. Patrick’s Day Parade, proudly marching up Fifth Avenue, along the famed “Green Line.” The experience remained one of the highlights of his life. In addition, Mr. Kelleher established the St. Brendan’s American Foundation and served as an advisor to the prime minister of Ireland on economic redevelopment. He also held an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, and was named to the Irish-American Hall of Fame. In 1995, he received The Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his dedication to serving the Staten Island community, honoring his ethnic heritage, and upholding the ideals and spirit of America. COMMUNITY CAUSES Mr. Kelleher served as a director of the Staten Island Foundation, which funds and supports a variety of community-based initiatives. “Everyone at the Staten Island Foundation was in awe of Denis. He was our conscience from the beginning. He fought for equity — education, job training, and economic opportunity for all. A beautiful soul and a righteous man — that was Denis,” said Staten Island Foundation chair Kathryn Rooney. Mr. Kelleher’s work with the Foundation went hand in hand with his commitment to feeding and sheltering the borough’s homeless and its immigrant community as a supporter of Project Hospitality. “Mr. Kelleher was deeply affected by his experience as a poor, young immigrant in his journey to America. His gift was his ability to see his own suffering in his youth, his vulnerability and his desire to become rooted in the American experience, in other immigrants’ lives...to experience the American dream and to give back significantly to this new country he called home. He supported the work of Project Hospitality with deep love and generous support, over 30-some years,” said the Rev. Terry Troia, president and CEO of Project Hospitality. ADVOCATE FOR EDUCATION “Denis held fast to the dream of educating youth, because he believed that education was the way out of poverty,” Rev. Troia said. “When Project Hospitality began to strategize how to get poor children to the point of literacy development and academic achievement,” in 2010, Mr. Kelleher was brought into into the planning of the borough’s first charter intermediate school for English language learners, the New World Preparatory Charter School in Port Richmond. He was also an ardent supporter of the Inner-City Scholarship Fund of the New York Archdiocese, helping to fund the education of hundreds of Catholic school children throughout the archdiocese, who might not otherwise have afforded tuition. CHURCH AND FAMILY Throughout his life Mr. Kelleher put his family and his Roman Catholic faith first, earning him the admiration and friendship of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who earlier in the week met with the family, and administered the last rite of the Catholic Church to the ailing Kelleher. Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the New York Archdiocese, said the cardinal was grateful for Mr. Kelleher’s generous support of the cardinal’s initiatives through the years. Most recently Mr. Kelleher lent his support to the campaign to restore the landmark St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Mr. Kelleher met personally with Pope Francis when he came to the cathedral during his New York visit in 2015. “The cardinal is immensely grateful for the support and friendship, and all that Mr. Kelleher did for the archdiocese and the church,” Zwilling said. And, closer to home, Mr. Kelleher was a long-time parishioner of St. Ann’s R.C. Church in Dongan Hills, where his wife was a parish trustee and currently serves on the finance committee. St. Ann’s pastor, the Rev. Joy Mampilly, said Mr. Kelleher gave generously -- but quietly -- to the parish and those in need. “He was, by nature, a giving person, always humble. He had a very quiet way of helping people in need. He was very generous to the parish and the parish community, and he will be missed,” Father Mampilly said. TRIBUTES POUR IN As word of Mr. Kelleher’s death became known, tributes began to pour in from throughout the borough, including present and former elected officials, leaders in the business community, religious leaders, and heads of the borough’s non-profits. Many cited his humble immigrant roots, his faith, and generosity. “His philanthropic work will have a lasting impact on generations to come. Staten Island lost a hero,” said Advance Publisher Caroline Diamond Harrison. “Denis rose to the highest echelons of professional success, but he never forgot his roots,” she said. “He gave back to those less fortunate in so many ways, from his home county in Ireland to Project Hospitality. Because of his strong belief that education provides the best opportunity, he was deeply committed to the New World Prep Charter School as well as St. John’s...” “Denis and Carol have been my friends for nearly 50 years," said Alice Diamond, Mrs. Harrison’s mother and wife of the late Advance Publisher Richard E. Diamond. "I can’t think of just Denis, it’s always Denis and Carol. Carol was Denis’ ‘North Star.’ She loved and supported him, particularly over the last few years. ‘Do unto others’ inspired Denis and now his memory will inspire us,” she said. The Diamonds were neighbors of the Kelleher family. “We lived next-door to the Kellehers during my childhood. Denis Jr., Sean, and Colleen were and are my closest friends," said Richard Diamond, Alice’s son who is president of Penn Jersey Advance. "Denis and Carol were wonderful parents. Their children were the most important and cherished thing in their lives. The kids could not have had a better role model than Denis. They were incredibly proud of their father as he was of them. His legacy lives on through them,” he said. Advance Executive Editor Brian J. Laline recalled Mr. Kelleher’s passion in defending his community. “Denis’ passion in protecting the image of his beloved Staten Island was extraordinary," Laline said. "He would become infuriated when he heard us mocked on TV sitcoms. In fact it was a TV sitcom mocking Staten Island over the landfill that finally broke the straw. Denis joined forces with the Advance and several community members to create a non-profit called SINY. Its mission: Simply put, to enhance the image of Staten Island. “A tall task, to be sure," Laline said. "But Denis’ passion left an indelible mark on all who were involved. And he made us better Staten Islanders.” Through the years Mr. Kelleher worked in bipartisan collaboration with former Borough Presidents Ralph Lamberti, a Democrat, James Molinaro, a Conservative, and current Borough President James Oddo, a Republican. Each expressed mutual gratitude and admiration for Mr. Kelleher and his service to the borough. “There isn’t a not-for-profit or community cause he didn’t play a part in. He made Staten Island what it is today," Lamberti said. Lamberti, who also served as board president of the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden, said Mr. Kelleher was an early supporter of Snug Harbor, when it was struggling to find funding and footing as a cultural institution. “Denis was first of all, a gentleman and a true friend. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone,” former BP Molinaro said. “He embodied what’s best about Staten Island, and his passing is a great loss to the community.” “When you hear about the passing of someone as extraordinary as Denis Kelleher, you immediately think of his family and friends and the pain they are enduring," current BP Oddo said. "I extend to them my sincere condolences. But you quickly think about the impact of his loss on our community. You don’t replace a Denis Kelleher. But for those of us who genuinely love Staten Island as he did, perhaps we can best honor him by looking inside ourselves, digging a bit deeper, doing a bit more, and being better. God rest his soul.” “He was, first and foremost, a man of faith, dedicated to family, and a true son of Ireland,” said Monsignor Peter Finn, who served as pastor of Blessed Sacrament R.C. Church, as co-vicar of Staten Island and principal of Monsignor Farrell High School. “He was a model of faith, family and community. He will be in my prayers.” “He was a quiet but forceful voice for Staten Island, truly an ambassador,” said Michael Manzulli, an attorney and chairman and chief executive officer of the Richmond County Savings Foundation. “Denis could have chosen to live anywhere. His roots were not like many who were born on the Island. His business did not require him to live here. But his belief in the people of Staten Island was genuine. He saw Staten Island so differently and positive from so many others. We will miss his vision.” “Denis Kelleher was living proof that America is the greatest country in the world," noted Lois and Richard Nicotra. "An immigrant who found success beyond his wildest dreams and never wavered on his commitment to Staten Island and St John’s University,” said the Nicotras, owners of the Hilton Garden Inn, Bloomfield, and both St. John’s alums. Mr. Kelleher, an Irish Catholic, was a good friend of the late Allan Weisglass, a leader in the Jewish community, who died in February. Mr. Weisglass was heir to the family’s dairy business. The two had much in common, as successful business owners working together on interests and causes to better Staten Island, and despite their religious differences, they shared a mutual respect, and values, said Mr. Weisglass’ widow, Bobbie. '“Allan and Denis were great friends. They had a lot in common, and a deep respect for each other. They were wonderful friends, and now they are together forever,” Mrs. Weisglass said. Jay Chazanoff and wife Lucille, philanthropists themselves, shared similar admiration for Mr. Kelleher. “Denis was a blessing to all those who knew him and a champion of those who never did. His devotion to his family, faith, friends and community was extraordinary and his commitment to making a difference in the lives of the less fortunate in our community was unwavering. His success in business was legendary but he never lost sight of his humble beginnings. I will miss my friend, neighbor and part-time golfing buddy,” said Chazanoff. Fred Cerullo, former South Shore councilman, New York City commissioner and now president of Grand Central Partnership, said he was “heartbroken” to learn of Mr. Kelleher’s death. “I was heartbroken to hear of Denis’ passing -- as a colleague on the Staten Island Foundation Board, an alumnus of St. John’s University and just a simple Staten Islander, I have been impacted by his generosity and vision and philanthropy. My deepest condolences go out to the entire Kelleher family --and to those members of Denis’ extended family -- all who have been touched by his love and selflessness. There’s no doubt that the Staten Island community has lost a very special friend.” District Attorney Michael McMahon said he considered it “an honor” to have known Mr. Kelleher. “Mr. Kelleher was one of the rarest of men who achieved unparalleled success as a great husband, father and patriarch of an incredible family, as the quintessential rags-to-riches American business success story, and as a humble and loving Catholic whose generous and often quiet charity embodied the true Christian spirit. All of Staten Island, including my extended family, mourn his loss, will miss his Irish lilt and sparkle, and send our deepest condolences to Carol and the whole Kelleher clan,” McMahon said. Dr. Kenneth Saccaro did much community work with Mr. Kelleher. “Today is a sad day for all of us who knew and loved Denis," Dr. Saccaro said. "I’ve always loved his story, coming from Ireland with $60 in his pocket, and going on to achieve tremendous success. “Denis used his talents and gifts to do so much good for the community,” he said. “Staten Island has lost a great man, and a great friend.” Mr. Kelleher is survived by his wife, Carol, two sons, Denis Kelleher Jr. and his wife, Rachel, and Sean Kelleher and his wife, Wendy; a daughter, Colleen Kelleher Sorrentino, and her husband, Dr. Robert Sorrentino; and eight grandchildren, Robert and Caroline Sorrentino, and Maggie, Jack, Dylan, Denis, Zoe and Alex Kelleher; two brothers, Bertie and John Kelleher, and a sister, Joan Wilson.
New World Preparatory Charter School
26 Sharpe Avenue, Staten Island, New York 10302
- Visitation Saturday, November 30, 2019
- Visitation Sunday, December 1, 2019
- Visitation Sunday, December 1, 2019
- Mass of Christian Burial Monday, December 2, 2019
- Entombment Monday, December 2, 2019
Denis P. Kelleher
November 29, 2019
Deepest sympathy to your family and to the Irish community for the loss of a great man. RIP
Patrick & Noreen O’Neill
November 26, 2019
Denis was a great Killarney man, he will be sadly missed.
Please accept our deepest condolences for your family ‘s loss.
Ye are in our thoughts and prayers.