Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards 2011
Mr. Kelly Frels
BS Political Science '66
Bracewell & Giuliani, LLP
Remarks by Dr. Ann Marie Ellis
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Houston attorney, managing partner of an international law firm, and legal scholar, Kelly Frels is one of the nation’s top authorities on school law. He is also a visionary community leader, working to improve the quality of life in Houston and throughout Texas.
Kelly grew up in Lolita, where his father farmed and his mother taught school. Kelly says that the population of Lolita was 400, if you counted the cows. He worked in cotton fields as a child, and later was a ginner to help pay for college. When he complained one day about chopping cotton, his father said, “Son, just remember that thick books are better than long cotton rows.” Both of his parents earned teaching certificates from Texas State, and they stressed the value of education.
Kelly had a tremendous fastball and played for Texas State’s baseball team. He also played football for his fraternity team . . . and I understand that he had an amazing ability to kick the ball into the end zone on kick-off. He held a number of offices in the fraternity and was chapter president when the chapter was admitted to the international fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha.
In his sophomore year, Kelly was president of the campus chapter of the Texas Student Education Association, the student arm of the Texas State Teachers Association. Under his leadership, the University’s 650 members formed a powerful voting bloc, electing candidates to offices and campaigning for teacher pay raises. Kelly credits the organization with his election as the University’s Student Body President. That student organization provided a group of campaigners bigger than any fraternity or athletic team could put together.
As Student Body President, Kelly was in the room when President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Higher Education Act of 1965, on the Texas State campus. He was the first recipient of the Outstanding Male Graduate Award from the Alumni Association, and after his graduation ceremony in 1966, he was asked to lead the cheer celebrating the University’s creation of the School of Liberal Arts. Kelly, we need to hear that cheer sometime!
During law school at The University of Texas, Kelly served as legislative assistant to Texas State Sen. Bill Patman, helping to create the Lavaca-Navidad River Authority. He also met his future wife, Carmela Madden, after seeing her picture in the University Star newspaper. The story announced Carmela’s appointment as Texas State’s Assistant Dean of Women, and from her picture and story Kelly could tell that she was beautiful, smart, and ambitious. After trying, and failing, to meet her on campus, he called her on the phone to introduce himself. He courteously gave her a week to check him out before he called her again for a date. She did indeed check him out—in fact she pulled his transcript to check his grades! On their third date, they became engaged. They have two grown children, Jonathan and Catherine, and we’re delighted to have the Frels family with us tonight.
After graduating from Law School, Kelly went to work for the Houston firm of Bracewell & Patterson, now Bracewell & Giuliani, where he became managing partner two decades later. One of the firm’s clients was the Houston Independent School District, which was facing complex issues related to the civil rights movement. Being the new guy in the firm, Kelly was assigned to represent the HISD because no one else was available to do it. To Kelly, the assignment presented a marvelous opportunity to chart new legal territory.
Among his most satisfying accomplishments, he led the legal effort to create the Houston Community College System, in the face of interests who put up strong legal and political roadblocks. He also led the effort to create the comprehensive magnet school system in 1975 that made HISD’s integration possible. His practice grew as he handled groundbreaking cases and counseled schools, colleges, and universities on student discipline, teacher employment, school governance, First Amendment rights, teacher strikes, and even the teaching of evolution and creationism.
Kelly’s pioneering work led to the publication of more than 60 journal articles; a book on Texas school law, now in its second printing; and a manual on documenting teacher performance, of which some 100,000 copies have circulated nationwide. His reputation developed, and he was asked to head national councils of school attorneys and professionals interested in the legal problems of education. His particular expertise also led him, with five others, to create the School Law Section of the State Bar of Texas.
Early in his career, the State Bar named Kelly an Outstanding Young Lawyer of Texas, and Texas State University named him a Distinguished Alumnus. Since then, he has received several lifetime achievement awards from legal groups. He is listed among the peer-ranked Best Lawyers in America, and Texas Monthly has named him a Texas Super Lawyer. He has chaired the board of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, and served as president of both the Houston Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas.
Recently, Kelly has focused a great deal of energy on ensuring Houston’s quality of life.
For the Greater Houston Partnership, he chaired a committee charged with improving Houston’s air quality, working successfully with residents, business, and industry to reduce ozone levels to within federal standards. In the process, he participated in the creation of two organizations of critical importance to the environment, both of which he now chairs: the Texas Environmental Research Consortium, which works to improve ozone science and air quality throughout Texas, and the Texas Clean Air Working Group, which brings together federal, state, and local government officials, environmental groups, and business leaders to discuss and promote efforts to clean the air. Kelly also chairs The Center for Houston’s future, a think-tank that looks beyond the horizon to make Houston one of the world’s best places in which to live and work.
Kelly’s farsighted leadership in advancing legal and environmental causes in the Lone Star State brings success to the organizations he works for and credit to our university. Kelly, on behalf of the College of Liberal Arts, I am pleased to present you with the College’s highest honor, the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.