By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Robert Earl Kelly loves Birmingham.
“I really think Birmingham is one of the greatest cities in the world,” said Kelly, owner of Kelly Road Builders Inc., a road construction, milling, and asphalt paving company that opened in 1999.
“No one can come here and see the valleys, the ridges, and the various terrain and not say, ‘Wow! This is a beautiful city.’ Also, some of the brightest people [live] in the city.”
Supporting City Schools
Kelly, a longtime Magic City resident, made sure his children were educated in Birmingham City Schools.
“It was very important that they were there,” he said. “We certainly could have moved into other areas, but I thought that it was important that they were in the Birmingham public school system and that we support it.”
Kelly said he can understand when people say they want to move so their children can attend different school systems: “I explain to them, when you move over there, you’re making their school system stronger and diluting ours.”
Kelly’s daughters, Natalie, 31, and Whitley, 27, are graduates of Birmingham City Schools.
“Neither one of them failed me,” he said. “They both graduated from Ramsay.”
Kelly further showed his love for the city by becoming a member of the executive committee of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, which evolved into the Birmingham Business Alliance. He also has served as chair and vice chair of Operation New Birmingham.
“I felt like it was extremely important to be a good citizen in our community, and that can be done in several ways,” said Kelly. “The easy thing is to write a check. The more rewarding and time-consuming thing is to be involved, and I wanted to be involved with the city. I will forever be indebted to this city. There’s not enough I can do to repay this city.”
Started in Theater
With his love for Birmingham, it’s hard to tell that Kelly is originally from Jackson, Miss. He attended Jackson State University on a theater scholarship.
“My sophomore year, this guy who was a business major asked me what my major was. When I said I was a theater major, he said, ‘Man, what kind of job are you going to get majoring in theater?’ I hadn’t thought that far ahead, so I changed my major to communications.”
Kelly earned a bachelor of science degree from Jackson State and has remained an active alumnus. He formerly served as president of the Jackson State University Birmingham Alumni Association.
Kelly really didn’t have an idea what he wanted to do once out of school, but his father planted a seed.
“My daddy was in the dump truck, sand, gravel business, so I was always around that,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time that my daddy wasn’t formally educated, but he was surely the most educated person I knew in my life.”
Kelly said he considered the dump truck business, but his father suggested that he take it to another level.
“He said, ‘Think bigger than that,’ and I did,” said Kelly.
That wasn’t to take anything away from theater, which Kelly said is “an amazing discipline.”
“Everyone should take at least a course of theater and understand the art and creativity,” he said. “One of the things you have to do throughout life is to convince someone to do something that you want them to do.”
The Magic City
Kelly moved to Birmingham in the late 1980s, after being transferred from a corporate job in Mobile. After arriving in the Magic City, he was given a promotion to a job in Nashville but declined the position. He loved the city too much.
He worked more than a dozen jobs before establishing his construction company, in part, because his father challenged him to build something that not many blacks owned. The company began as Kelly Construction Co. and grew to Kelly Road Builders, which has become one of the largest road building companies in the Southeast. To this day, Kelly doesn’t take credit for the company’s success.
“We have some very smart, dedicated people, very loyal people that work in our organization,” he said. “[They’re] much brighter than I am. It’s one thing to come up with a vision, but you also have to know your capabilities—or your lack of capabilities—and you have to be able to identify people who can fill the void on the things you’re lacking. You hope they can capture your vision.”
Kelly has always found ways to give back to the city. One of the many causes he supports is the Birmingham Sickle Cell Foundation. He is a former chair of the annual Sickle Cell Gala event and was among the thousands who helped raise $1 million to help create an adult sickle cell clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“When the executive director called and asked me to do it, I said no several times and said, ‘But let me give you a check,’ Kelly said. “She was quite persistent, [however], and one day she came to my door unannounced. I said, ‘Let me think about it.’”
“I had lost a sister to sickle cell,” Kelly recalled. “And though it had been a few years, the wound still had a scab on it and I just didn’t want those emotions to be uncontrollable.”
Dee Kelly, his wife of nearly four decades, convinced him to chair the gala—and he hosted the event in grand fashion. Kelly also is the founder of Showtime at the Apollo—Birmingham Style, an annual fundraising event for the Sickle Cell Foundation. The first year, the event drew Kiki Shepard, longtime co-host of television’s “Showtime at the Apollo,” and netted $275,000. In four years, the event reached its $1 million goal when Kelly decided to let someone else chair.
Kelly has served on several boards and organizations, including the Birmingham Education Foundation, the Lawson State Community College Foundation, and the BB&T Bank Local Advisory Board. He’s chaired Operation New Birmingham (now REV Birmingham) and the Birmingham African-American Business Council. And he also has served as honorary chair for the Miles College President’s Scholarship Ball, which in 2010 raised more than $250,000 for student scholarships.
With all his success, though, Kelly said he never could figure out early in life what he wanted to do.
“I also realized that I needed to keep doing something,” he said. “I tell young people today, ‘Always keep doing something because everything you do today will ultimately prepare you for what you eventually will be doing.’”