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Adrian Walker

Causes for celebration

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 14, 2011

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When Tom Kelley’s many admirers decided they wanted to hold a party in his honor, he reluctantly agreed — with two conditions.

One, he wanted the event to serve a good cause. And second, there could be no party without the presence of Richard “Doc’’ Nelson, the man who saved Kelley’s life 42 years ago during combat in Vietnam.

Kelley, the state’s longtime Veterans Affairs secretary, left office this year. Leaving wasn’t his idea. After serving four governors, he was bumped from the job by Governor Deval Patrick and left without a public ceremony.

That oversight was to be rectified last night at the Hynes Convention Center, where up to 600 of his fans were expected to turn out for a farewell/charity event to benefit the children of fallen soldiers. That satisfied his first condition. And when Kelley and I spoke yesterday, Doc Nelson, now 80, was expected to arrive at his doorstep in Somerville at any moment, having traveled from Georgia to honor his old pal.

Nelson was a Navy corpsman — a medic — when Kelley was serving his tour in Vietnam. Kelley was on patrol near the Mekong Delta when his boat came under heavy fire. “He brought his boat next to mine, jumped on board, and saved my life,’’ said Kelley, who suffered serious eye and skull injuries in the engagement.

“He stabilized me, kept me from going into shock until we got out of the ambush.’’ Kelley was then evacuated by helicopter. “Doc is the reason I’m alive,’’ he said. Kelley’s account soft-pedals his own heroism that day, which won him the coveted Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest combat award.

Kelley and Nelson have stayed in touch over the years, talking a few times a year, and visiting every couple of years. “When I heard about this little party they’re having for me, I said I’m not coming unless Doc Nelson is there.’’

The “little party’’ he was referring to was actually shaping up as a major event. Lots of big shots were planning to turn out to pay tribute, including Senator Scott Brown, comedian Lenny Clarke, and a platoon’s worth of veterans. The host committee included all four governors Kelley served under, including Patrick.

Kelley had no interest in reigniting the controversy that broke out after he was replaced, saying diplomatically, “I really had a wonderful experience working for the state and was able to get a lot of good things done, so I feel very good about my life.’’

The driving force behind the gala was Charlie Baker, the former state official and Republican gubernatorial candidate. He had long admired Kelley, and felt his career called for an appropriate sendoff.

“Anyone I talked to had nothing but great things to say about him,’’ Baker said. “There are 84 [living] Medal of Honor recipients, and he’s one of them. And 10 years is a long time to advocate for veterans anywhere, including Massachusetts. He got a lot of important things done.’’

Kelley may have initially been skeptical, but by yesterday he was excited. His four children were coming to town. Though he turned 72 yesterday, he didn’t sound ready for a rocking chair. “I’ve been looking around for things to keep me busy, and I’ve found a few things. I’m not really retired. I’m sort of in-between.’’

He seemed mildly embarrassed by all the fuss, but happy to raise money for a favorite cause. The Massachusetts Soldiers Legacy Fund provides educational and financial assistance to the children of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last night’s event was expected to raise about $150,000.

Kelley, in fact, will be a contributor as well as the honoree. He insisted on that. “He bought two tickets to his own event,’’ Baker said. “That really tells you everything you need to know.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.