Hugh P. Kelly

Electrical Engineering
Class of 1937, BS, MS

If you are searching the World Wide Web for the memorable events of the 1960s, one of the sites that features the “revolutionary” occurrences of this decade shows only eight noteworthy events for 1962. Among them were the introduction of Polaroid’s instant photos, Rachel Carson’s publishing of Silent Spring, the Beatles’ production of their first number one hit, “Love Me Do,” and AT&T’s launching of Telestar, a communications satellite that performed the first live transmission between the U.S. and Europe.

Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering takes special pride in this last achievement by Bell Labs, a branch of AT&T, where one of its alumni, Hugh P. Kelly, worked. Mr. Kelly was instrumental in the Telestar project. His role was the design and construction of the horn antenna that, in conjunction with Telestar, provided a perfect picture of an event at the time it was occurring.

Mr. Kelly, who received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 1937 and in 1938, respectively, joined the Richmond, Virginia, telephone company after graduation. His work in Richmond truly charted the course of his life. There, he met his future wife, Ethel, but it took him two years before he asked her out on a date. And his future mother-in-law was most enamored by the thoughts of Hugh marrying her daughter, suggesting the idea long before the question was asked. They eventually married on Sept. 18, 1941.

And, as he was about to receive a U.S. Navy commission in 1941 to serve in World War II, Bell Labs selected him for its New York office to conduct research communications work during the global conflict. He and Ethel moved to New York where they spent the next five years, and then they moved to Bell Labs corporate headquarters in New Jersey.

His work during the war impressed the communications giant, and when the surrender was signed, Mr. Kelly was one of just a handful of men the company retained. As Mr. Kelly moved up the corporate ladder, he was eventually placed in charge of developing the Trans Atlantic Cable in 1960. He and Ethel spent six months in London and five months in Paris. He saved the company millions of dollars by finishing the cable well ahead of schedule. After the success of this project and the reputation he earned, the French government was persuaded to buy into the Telestar proposal.

“My husband loved every minute of his work,” Mrs. Kelly says. She recalls that when a cover over Telestar collapsed, he left his management position to work side by side with the men for three days and three nights to repair the problem. “He was the type of person who could do anything, even the plumbing work at home.”

When the Telestar link between the U.S. to France was completed, the French government recognized Mr. Kelly for his efforts, presenting him with its prestigious Merite Postal Award in 1962 at a party hosted for all of the French and Americans who had worked on the antenna. Mr. Kelly later worked on the Telestar II project.

But as demanding as his job was, Mrs. Kelly recalls he always had time for their marriage. She traveled with him constantly. Mrs. Kelly recalls, “We had a beautiful marriage.”

Hugh Kelly died in January of 1989. He left behind a legacy of excellence that will long be an inspiration for future engineers. In April of 1999, Ethel Kelly was inducted into Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society in honor of her generosity and devotion to the College of Engineering. She also established the Hugh P. and Ethel C. Kelly Professorship of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Class of: 1937
Year Inducted into Academy: 2002

Hugh P. Kelly