Do you know Paul Kelly?

Back in 1980, I was a freshman at DePaul University in Chicago. On January 12th of that year – a Saturday – I was back home at my parents’ house after spending the first week of the second semester on campus. I imagine I returned for a weekend visit after I had gotten used to the comforts of home during Christmas break. The cold, dark days of January often lead us Midwesterns to hibernate a bit. And for that, there’s no place like home.

Sometime after 10pm that night, my mom came down into the basement where I was watching TV with my two younger sisters. She stood in the doorway and asked me, “Do you know Paul Kelly?”

Without even wondering why she was asking, I answered, “Yes”.

I immediately noticed a distressed look on her face. She may have let out a deeply held sigh or maybe even a slight groan of lament. It was as if she was hoping my response would have been different. I could tell she was hesitant to go on but knew that she had no choice.

“I just saw on the news that a Paul Kelly at DePaul was stabbed near the dorm,” she told me begrudgingly. My mom was a news junkie. She read newspapers ferociously and watched the early afternoon and 10 o’clock news programs religiously. She was my source, in those days, for breaking news. She reported to us in the same fashion when John Lennon was shot. She also was the one who informed me when another DePaul friend, Mike Hie, was killed when an insecure load fell off of a truck and onto his compact car.

So, I am not sure whether it was with Paul or Mike when Mom came down a second time in the same night to tell me that, while he was rushed to the hospital with no evidence of brain-wave activity, he was eventually pronounced dead.

Paul was stabbed 26 times. Although I have thought about him often over the years and especially remember him every January 12th (the birth date of my only godchild), it wasn’t until last week when I actually read the case documents in the criminal trial of his murderer. The events were even more disturbing than I had imagined.

When I returned to school the following day, there were news cameras outside of our dorm. I lived in the same dorm, Corcoran Hall, where Paul lived and where he was killed.

Corcoran Hall
Corcoran Hall on the Lincoln Park campus of DePaul University in Chicago

I remember being in class some time after that when a fellow student walked in and announced with disgust to a good friend of Paul that Franke Alerte “got 30 years”.

We all played on the school tennis teams, those two students, Paul, and myself. I was a walk-on. Paul was at DePaul on a scholarship. I remember when the women’s team got together after the murder and well after our season had ended, a teammate shared that when she heard the news that a freshman tennis player who lived in Corcoran had been killed, she thought it was me. I fit that description, as well. It could have been me.

I wasn’t extremely close with Paul. Because we lived in the dorm, we’d see each other in the lobby or back and forth, to and fro. I remember he loved playing ping-pong in the lobby. There was one time when some of my girlfriends and I were studying (hanging-out) in the lobby and Paul was playing ping-pong. He was on our end of the lobby and I just remember one of us reading out loud one of the questions of our assignment. “What is the underlying theme of blah, blah, blah?”

Just then, Paul came over to fetch an errant ping-pong ball near our chairs and repeated, “What is the underlying theme?” It’s funny that I remember such an otherwise unremarkable moment.

I also remember walking to class one morning, across the lawn outside the dorm – on the diagonal path made only by foot traffic – and Paul was going the same way just a few yards behind me. Neither of us said anything to the other. Maybe it was too early in the morning or maybe we were both just too shy.

Yet, we had more in common than just being somewhat reserved freshman tennis players living in Corcoran Hall. We were both on the lower end of large Irish-Catholic families. He was the youngest with many older brothers. I was the eighth out of ten. We both grew up in the suburbs and were still adjusting to life in the big city.

Contrarily, the man who attacked Paul that night was from a different background. While he was a student at DePaul, Frankie Alerte was 27 years old, nearly ten years older than Paul. He grew up in a not-so-peaceful neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago which is home to St. Sabina and the famous Michael Pfleger.

If the news reports were correct, Frankie had wanted to play for the tennis team but was given a job as team manager instead. I read one article that described him as a coach. In Major League Baseball, managers are coaches but in school sports, managers are basically equipment gophers.

So, while Paul had many friends from the team, the dorm, and probably from his classes, he opened himself to also be friends with this fellow who must have been sort of a misfit character. That would be a testament to Paul’s own character. He wasn’t a snob. And he wasn’t a racist.

According to eye-witness testimony, Paul was in the dorm lobby playing ping-pong with a friend on the afternoon of January 12, 1980. The friend notice Alerte – who did not live in the dorm – pacing outside the door with papers in his hand and seemingly stressed out about something. Then, the friend left and Paul and Alerte were seen playing ping-pong.

Shortly before 7pm, witnesses noticed two men running across the lawn in front of Corcoran. One student reported that she was in the lobby and heard a key scratching at the outside lock on the door.

Several students separately approached that same entrance during the assault. One noticed two men standing close to one another. Another saw the taller man, Paul, slouched over with his back against the brick wall, with the smaller man, Alerte, holding him up. Another witnessed Paul clasping his throat and trying to move closer to the door while Alerte intentionally moved to block her view.

When they asked if he was okay, Alerte told them that Paul was intoxicated and that he would “get over it”. (Autopsy results proved Paul didn’t have an ounce of alcohol in him.)

As time when by, the evidence became more clear as to what was happening. Some witnesses noticed blood on Paul’s neck. One realized his throat had been cut and another spotted Alerte stuff a shiny object (his knife) into his pocket. Eventually, the students called 9-1-1 and Alerte took off.

One of the friends with whom I attended Paul’s wake – a fellow student who also lived in Corcoran – is black. He wasn’t allowed to go inside. That made me sad because, I remember thinking, that wasn’t the kind of person Paul was. Paul knew our mutual friend was nothing like Frankie. But then, again, Paul probably never would have befriended Frankie if he knew that he was capable of such violence and would eventually turn on him.

But, I understood – as much as one who has never been there possibly can – the raw, unimaginable pain Paul’s parents and siblings were going through. He was the youngest, their baby. He was intelligent, talented, and was a good, decent person. He had his whole life ahead of him and his future looked bright. But it was senselessly, brutally cut short in a fit of rage by a man who had tendencies toward violence since childhood.

Who knew? Did DePaul know? Did the tennis coach know? Certainly Paul Kelly didn’t know.

Alerte’s subsequent murder trial included testimonies by doctors, including a psychiatrist, who suggested Alerte has some sort of “organic brain syndrome” which could cause “rage attacks and blackouts”. In fact, according to Dr. Fredric A. Gibbs, a 15-year-old Alerte grabbed the doctor’s tie during an examination back in 1969 and started dragging him toward an open window. Luckily, Gibbs had a friend in the room who could interrupt the attack.

Paul Kelly wasn’t as fortunate.

Thankfully, the jury didn’t fall for the defendant’s argument of “My abnormal brain made me do it”. Clearly, Alerte knew what he was doing was wrong. Otherwise, why lie and say Paul was drunk? If he was so crazy that he couldn’t control himself, why did he run?

The best guess on motive? The deadly sin of envy. Paul had – and was – everything Frankie wanted and wished to be.

Yes, 30 years for such a brutal crime is a joke. Often, convicts serve only half of their sentence because of “time off for good behavior”. Indeed, 15 years for taking another man’s life that way is an insult. But the injustice doesn’t end there.

Alerte appealed his conviction and District Judge Suzanne Conlon ruled that Alerte was denied a fair trial. On top of that, there was a “paperwork mixup” with the Illinois attorney general’s office. Nevertheless, the verdict of guilty was affirmed.

Alerte eventually got out and, in 1998, attacked a 60 year-old man and was subsequently arrested, charged, and convicted of attempted murder. He is currently serving a 40 year sentence at Stateville Prison (the prison made famous in The Blues Brothers with Belushi as Joliet Jake and Aykroyd as his brother, Elwood.) Alerte is projected to be discharged in 2035 when he is 81.

Paul’s family sued DePaul. I’m not sure how that ever ended but, knowing the Roman Catholic Church as I do, my guess is there was some sort of a settlement with a zero-publicy clause. Several years after I graduated, I read in the Chicago Tribune that Paul’s dad had passed away. I believe it was a heart attack – maybe a broken heart.

I don’t remember the university leading any kind of outreach effort after Paul’s death. Like I said, Roman Catholic institutions tend to try to sweep such matters under the rug. Here was a scholarship, possibly recruited, athlete – a freshman – stabbed to death by an older man whom the university both admitted and hired (as team manager). If compassion was the rule at the school, there would have been a huge tribute to Paul and some kind of recognition to his life and legacy on campus. But, there is nothing.

Last year, I received an e-mail from the DePaul athletic department, asking all letter-winners if we wanted to purchase a brick outside the athletic fields with our name and respective sport on it. Instead, I paid $200 for a brick with “Paul Kelly – Tennis” stamped on it because I think it’s a crime that DePaul has all but ignored the fact he was ever there in the first place. Because men’s tennis was a spring sport, Paul never even got to play a single match for the Blue Demons. Should he not, I inquired, be recognized by the university as an honorary varsity letter winner? Was that not the least they could do for him?

After Paul’s death, a bunch of us students would gather in that same lobby where he had played so many ping-pong matches. We’d form a huge circle – hand in hand – and pray, share, and remember. Maybe we’d ocassionally laugh through our pain if someone shared a funny memory of Paul. What institutions so often fail to do, leave it to ordinary people, especially young people, to respond with natural – human – inclinations.

Paul’s death – and his life – have taught me a lot. After the loss of his life, Mike Hie’s life, and the life of another friend I knew from high school, I had a hunch God was trying to tell me something: Don’t take anyone – or anything – for granted. People won’t always be there. Don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do – or say – today.

I’d give my right arm to walk alongside Paul Kelly one more time. But, this time would be different than the last. This time I’d say something, maybe something dorky like, “How’s that backhand coming along?”

But, what I cannot say to Paul, I can say to someone else. These days, I’m not so shy. I’m more inclined to speak to strangers I pass on the walking path or with whom I’m standing in a long line. I’ve met some very interesting people that way and I’ve had some fascinating conversations that make me wonder if things aren’t more planned than we realize.

When I live my life – day to day, when I do little things that just might add a tiny dose of goodness into the world or, maybe, erase a bit of badness from it, I always feel the spirit of Paul Kelly and others whom I have known and lost, many way too soon.

And, because of that, they are never really gone, are they?


Note: At 7pm this Saturday, January 12, 2013, I will be standing outside the entrance of Corcoran Hall on the campus of DePaul University with a candle lit for the life of Paul Christopher Kelly. Anyone is welcome to join me but, if no one does, I am not afraid to stand alone. For I have friends in high places.

Also see “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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