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Regan Communications

The holidays were marked with sadness for the friends, family, and employees of Somerville restaurateur Ken Kelly, who passed away after a long battle with cancer on Dec. 23. “Ken Kelly was, and is, one of the most dedicated, loyal, and selfless Somervillians this city has known,” says Somerville mayor and friend Joe Curtatone, adding, “What Ken did for Somerville is indispensable, and we would not be the city we are today without him. He believed in Somerville, in its people, and its character.”

Kelly, who received the city’s Chamber of Commerce lifetime achievement award in 2014, had a vision for the Somerville restaurant scene. He opened the Independent in a much less polished and hip Union Square in 2001. “Somerville was very different back in those days. I mean, sure he’s a business person, he’s an entrepreneur, he wanted to build businesses, but I think he also wanted to build a community,” says Jess Willis, chief operating officer of Kelly’s six bars and restaurants — the Independent, Brass Union, Foundry on Elm, Saloon, the Davis Square Theatre, and River Bar — who began working with Kelly in 2002.


“I remember when I first met him, and first started working at the Independent, at the time I was living over in Boston and he quickly convinced me that Somerville was where it was at, and to get out of Mission Hill and come on over here, because you could really sense that there was something budding,” says Willis.

She stressed that while there has been a lot of recognition for Kelly’s contributions to the economic revitalization of Union Square and Somerville as a whole, his impact was even more profound. “The thing that really struck me is how many people have these amazing stories about how their life was changed because of Ken, even people who he didn’t even know, he just kind of passively influenced their lives. People who have met their husbands at one of the restaurants, or meet their best friends working together.” Willis says she knows at least a half-dozen families that have sprung out of relationships started at the Independent.


The COO says Kelly’s restaurants will continue to be a cornerstone of the Somerville community. “We have a lot of employees. We have a lot of loyal customers. We are absolutely going to keep things going. Nothing will change.”

After Kelly’s funeral last Wednesday, Willis gathered with other mourners at the Independent and Brass Union to celebrate Kelly’s life and share remembrances. Willis was chatting with one of Kelly’s friends from Ireland about his ability to transform forgotten buildings into beautiful gathering spaces. “He said what he realized about Ken is that Ken didn’t just build bars, he built monuments. . . . I think we should all be very grateful for that.”

Catherine Smart can be reached at cathjsmart@gmail.com.