How Did I End Up Here?

With his distinct brogue and twinkle in his eye, Ted Kelly wowed the audience with his tale of growing up the fifth of ten children, on a remote farm in a little Irish village with no running water or electricity. Technological innovation was in his blood from an early age. When he was only 18 months old, he developed croup and was rushed to the hospital. According to his mother and subsequent fact checkers, Kelly was the first child in Ireland to be given penicillin. It saved his life. His mother, however, continued to be anxious and kept young Kelly indoors instead of letting him play outside like his siblings. He spent a lot of his time reading, and he developed a love of learning that got him a scholarship to college in Belfast. At college he was told in no uncertain terms that if he could get into MIT, he should go there for graduate studies.

Kelly said that what really struck him about MIT was “the Math Department’s incredible commitment to education. You don’t learn calculus from a teaching assistant – you learn calculus from a brilliant mathematician like Arthur Mattuck.” Under the supervision of his advisor, Professor Sigurdur Helgason, Kelly finished his thesis and set out to find employment. In 1970 the Vietnam War was raging and Ted had a low draft number, a wife, a baby daughter, and foreign citizenship, making him a likely draft pick. With Professor Helgason’s referral, he packed the family into the car and drove to New Brunswick for an Assistant Professor position.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was bad luck,” says Kelly. And after a few years of teaching and finding it less enjoyable than he had hoped, he decided to try something else. Ted passed the exam to become an actuary with flying colors and landed a job at Aetna after going through the Yellow Pages alphabetically looking for insurance companies. (Having lived in Boston he knew both John Hancock and Prudential, but neither was hiring at the time.)

In 1992 when Ted joined Liberty Mutual, the company was near bankruptcy. Today it is a solidly profitable Fortune 100 company with $35 billion in annual sales and 4700 employees in Massachusetts alone. How has he been so successful? Remembering lessons (“the idea that housing prices can’t fall is nuts”), respecting people, holding to standards, and doing what he loves. Following the talk, Dean Kastner welcomed Kelly and his family and members of the Mathematics Department for dinner at the Commonwealth Hotel. For many years now, Kelly and Liberty Mutual have supported MIT by providing fellowship support for graduate students in the Department of Mathematics.