Responses to a Tragedy

A candlelight vigil in Paul Kelly's memory at Corcoran Hall
From left, Maureen Doherty, Hannah Lutz, and Rosie Velasco gather outside of Corcoran Hall in remembrance of Paul Kelly.

This past week, I have written about the life and death of Paul Christopher Kelly. It’s been bittersweet to look back so many years at the tragedy of Paul’s death in 1980 and yet also the beauty of his life and the legacy he has left to this world.

Six days after Paul was killed, a letter written by DePaul University president John R. Cortelyou was published in the DePaulia, the student newspaper of the campus where Paul and I were both freshman, tennis players, and residents of Corcoran Hall.

It read as follows:

TO:  Members of the DePaul Community         

The DePaul University community is shocked by the recent act of violence on the Lincoln Park campus resulting in the death of one of our students. We express our sincerest condolences to the family of Paul Kelly, though we realize this in no way can begin to assuage the grief over their irreplaceable loss.      

We also know that an emotional and tragic incident between people who know each other is not necessarily something to which anyone can respond at the time. However, in an effort to restore a healthy attitude toward our dormitory security system, we have stationed a security guard on twenty-four hour duty at Corcoran Hall. There has begun, as well, a thorough inventory of all elements involved in the security of all dormitories. This effort will cover lighting, locks, doors, alarm systems, and all related systems.      

Further, volunteers from our mental health clinic and the campus ministry are offering assistance to students who have been traumatically affected by this violent crime. Students are being urged to take advantage of this offer to help.      

We urgently request the total co-operation of all the residents of the dorms. We recognize that no building can be made secure unless the residents do their part. We know, too, that we must be helpful to one another in our university family and we ask that we all share our concern and care for the other person.      

As a university family, we must all do our part to see that such a tragedy does not recur. We must not relax our efforts to be diligent and considerate for the safety of our fellow beings.

Rev. John R. Cortelyou, C.M.

If I had read that statement 33 years ago – and I very well may have – I would have thought it to be touching, sincere, and compassionate. Now, however, I look at the world, and the Roman Catholic Church, and Roman Catholic priests with different eyes than I did back then.

What this letter says to me more than anything else is that DePaul University was not willing to accept one iota of responsibility for the harm that came to one of its young students on campus.

Paul’s parents trusted the officials and employees at DePaul with their son, just as my parents did with me. Sending your 18 year-old from the relative safety of the suburbs to the city – on their own – is a brave thing for parents to do.

And while it was not the institution’s responsibility to keep us safe and alive, the school did have a responsibility to provide some basic level of security. In this case DePaul failed – big time.

Cortelyou had the audacity, less than a week after the campus murder, to instruct us students to “do your part” after he failed to do his part for a year and a half! “We must not relax our efforts to be diligent,” he wrote, after he ignored plea after plea from Corcoran residents for the same level of security as Clifton Hall, the newer dorm.

Cortelyou failed to accept any responsibilty for the lack of security at Corcoran where Paul was killed in the dark. It was dark because the light bulb at the main entrance where he was trying to seek protection from his killer was burned out.

But, not only that: He also suggested in this letter to the DePaul community that Paul was in some “emotional” exchange with Frank Alerte before Alerte started stabbing.

I don’t know. Paul didn’t seem like the overly-emotional type. He was certainly not a hothead. But maybe that type of characterization by the DePaul president who probably never even met him suited the attorneys who were representing DePaul at the time. As is usually the case, these types of letters are approved – if not crafted – by legal counsel and rule number one is, Don’t Admit to Anything.

We know now that Alerte had a violent past when DePaul opened the doors for him to enter campus and befriend unsuspecting students and scholarship tennis players. We know now that Frankie had a history of “turning on” people with whom he was friends.

So, I’d just like to set the record straight right here and now. This was not some emotional incident “between two people who know each other”. This was an incident where one man, armed with a knife, brutally attacked another man who had nothing in his hands but his keys to Corcoran Hall.

Yet, those keys didn’t help him. One witness who was in the Corcoran lobby at the time said she heard a key scratching at the lock. Gee, I wonder why? Maybe because it was too damn dark to see the keyhole!

But, don’t blame DePaul for that for it was “not necessarily something to which anyone can respond at the time”. Why not, “Father”? Why could a uniformed security guard – the one Corcoran residents requested but never received – not have responded at the time? The reason the security guard couldn’t respond is because he was at Clifton Hall, the newer dorm.

And when Clifton’s security guard finally arrived at the scene from the other side of the campus, he had to illuminate the area with the headlights from his patrol car in order to find Paul, by then on the ground. Most of us students didn’t have cars. And so, what? Did Cortelyou & Co. expect students to walk around with gas lanterns and flashlights?

One more point about this letter: Cortelyou says, “in an effort to restore a healthy attitude toward our dormitory security system…..” Healthy attitude? As if this was all just a matter of Corcoran students having bad attitudes about security? After one of our own was murdered?

A little word of advice to members of the Catholic clergy in positions of power and authority: When tragedy strikes, speak from the heart or don’t speak at all. In times like these, compassion – not legalism – ought to be the guiding force, particularly for members of a religious community.

During my sophomore year at DePaul, I moved to a room that happened to be above the spot where Paul lay bleeding profusely in the dark. My room was on the third floor and I remember having fantasies about throwing a TV or some other heavy object down on Frankie Alerte, not necessarily to kill him but to protect whatever poor soul he was attacking at the time.

In tennis, if your first serve hits the net, it is called a let and you get another chance. I guess I was hoping we could re-do that night and have it turn out differently.

The more minor crimes that had occurred in the dorm the week prior to the slaying had placed some urgency in our calls for more security. Paul was a part of that effort and had even mentioned to one of his brothers about the need for more security at Corcoran. Still, the university was asleep at the wheel and didn’t make any changes to security – or replace the burned out bulb – until after Paul died. Then, it was almost immediate.

For several years after this tragedy, I could not sleep with my back to the bedroom door – on campus or off. I was afraid of being stabbed in the back while so vulnerable. Those fears have since subsided but, in reality, I have been stabbed in the back quite a few times in the figurative sense. And, like Paul, it has always been by someone with whom I was close and had trusted.

From here on out, I will remember Paul Kelly for the way he lived and not the brutal but temporary fear and pain he suffered on the night of January 12, 1980.

I will allow his life and legacy to continue to inspire me in my life and in my work in trying to improve the ways and means of the Roman Catholic Church and also for how our society deals with unhealthy behaviors, mental illness, and criminal proclivities. In Paul’s memory and by the example of his life, I will continue to try to be a voice for the voiceless and a protector of the lambs among wolves.

Whenever I am in the neighborhood, I will stop and pause a moment over Paul Kelly’s memorial brick on the letter-winners’ walk and maybe return to the doorway whence he and I both entered and exited so many times.

The clay tennis courts where we played have since been torn down and replaced with an indoor basketball arena and a parking garage. But, I don’t need them to remember. I will always remember. And I will never, ever forget.

Thank you, Paul, for a life well lived.


Also see Do you know Paul Kelly?, “Nicest kid I’d ever met”, Love, instead of Hate, It Took a Dead Body, and From Spoiled Brat to Killer.

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