John Lewis Kelly was born May 16, 1925 in Chicago, Illinois to Lewis Aaron Kelly and Ora Mae (Ambrose) Kelly and passed away in Cortez, Colorado on April 24, 2022 just shy of his 97th birthday.
John grew up in Chicago and in Shelby, Michigan where he graduated from High School. The extent of John’s legendary spirit of adventure, and unique approach to life, first became evident as a child when he built a homemade kayak that sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan a perilous distance from shore. Rumor has it he accompanied his father on “business” trips to Canada, where the two would happen to return to Chicago with cases of whiskey during Prohibition; his father claimed it was less suspicious to have a child in the car. Not one to settle down at first, John lived in Chicago for many years where he ran a number of businesses including a gas station and tack shop, trained polo horses and raced MG sports cars. While exercising polo horses at a stable in Chicago, he met Marjorie Herbert, who was riding her beloved gaited walking horse, Smokey. He introduced himself by asking if he could ride Smokey. She said no, but they immediately hit it off, and were married in 1962. She never once let him ride that horse.
John and Marj shared a love of everything West, trains, and horses. For years they operated Kelly’s Saddlery in Wheeling, Illinois and explored the Four Corners area on months-long summer road trips; first with a Siamese cat named Mandy that Maria Martinez in Taos wanted to trade several of her pots for; and later with that same damn cat and their son, Jon. One summer, after driving their International Scout over Black Bear Pass into Telluride and down the Dolores River Canyon to Mesa Verde, they knew they finally found their home and moved to Cortez in 1974. Here they ran the Hitchin’ Post Saddlery and Western Wear store on Broadway and then on Market Street for several years. Even after retirement, John was well-known for selling his hand-crafted tack and belts at events and festivals.
After a few years in town, John decided it was time get back into horses and announced to Marj that he purchased two rescue donkeys and needed to immediately buy land to put them on. He bought an old homestead on Summit Ridge and spent years involved in the Mesa Verde Backcountry Horsemen riding with friends over every inch of the canyons, mesas and mountains he loved. His forays into the backcountry continued well into his 90s, which on more than one occasion necessitated rescue by helicopter. One flight crew was so impressed, they came to his hospital room to be regaled by his stories for an hour. After his family revoked his driver’s license as he put it, he would sometimes ride his horse, or tractor, for miles to the Dolores Senior Center for lunch with his friends.
John was particularly close to his granddaughters who loved his stories and often joined him on adventures great and small which sometimes ended in important life lessons, like how to feed an ice cream cone to a horse or what to do when your horse takes off bucking cross-country after being spooked by a bear. The lesson being “when you encounter bears in this life—you have to out ride ‘em.” He was affectionally known as Grandpa John to all of their friends. He valued a simple faith in Jesus, generosity, friendship, stewardship of the land and a fierce independent spirit that blazed his path for a century.
John is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Jon and Julia Kelly, of Dolores, Colorado; granddaughter Christine Kelly and her fiancé Zachary Fronapfel of Grand Junction, Colorado; granddaughter Katherine Kelly of Charleston, South Carolina; and friends too numerous to count. He was preceded in death by his wife of 45 years, Marjorie Diane Kelly.
Memorial contributions can be made in John’s name to the Back Country Horsemen of America, bcha.org, or the Galloping Goose Historical Society in Dolores, gallopinggoose5.org.