In early February, Jerry Kennelly was sitting in an O’Hare Airport lounge waiting for a connecting flight on his way from Boston to Los Angeles. He was reading the Chicago Tribune and noticed an advertisement offering naming rights for the new Riverside-Brookfield High School football stadium in exchange for a sizable donation.

That gave Kennelly, who lived in Riverside for six years as a child, an idea. 

He thought it would be a great way to honor his great uncle, Martin H. Kennelly, who served as mayor of Chicago from 1947 until he was defeated by Richard J. Daley in 1955.

“There were never any remembrances for Martin in the Chicago area,” Kennelly said. “His accomplishments have always been a matter of pride to our whole family. Riverside jumped off the page and caught my eye, because I have extremely warm childhood memories of the place as a fantastic little village. The idea formed in my head. Martin’s sort of overlooked and here’s a chance to do something.”

So Kennelly, the 64-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based Riverbed Technologies, called District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis and they began talking. 

The end result was a $140,000 donation by Kennelly to RBHS. In exchange, the new stadium will be called the Kennelly Athletic Complex for at least the next 20 years. The district also will mount a plaque with a short biography of Martin H. Kennelly in a “suitable location.”

Martin Kennelly was a native of Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood and lived much of his adult life on the North Side of Chicago. Jerry Kennelly lived with his parents and five sisters in Riverside on Gage Road for six years from when he was age 4 until he was 10, when the family moved to San Jose. Martin Kennelly was a frequent visitor to Riverside to have Sunday dinner with his relatives. 

“We saw him a lot,” Kennelly said. “We never knew our own grandfather, because he died when my father was a child and Martin was sort of the family patriarch, and so we saw him a lot.” 

Kennelly has fond memories of his childhood in Riverside.

“I believe in supporting youth activities, and it was an opportunity to do that in a place I have a good memory of and also get some recognition of Martin Kennelly,” Kennelly said.

Before becoming Chicago mayor, Martin H. Kennelly was a successful businessman, founding the Allied Van Lines moving company. He also served as a president of the Lincoln Park Association and the Chicago chapter of the American Red Cross. Kennelly, who never married, died in 1961.

Kennelly was known as reformer while mayor. He had no experience in politics when he was picked to run for mayor by the Cook County Democratic Party largely to clean up its image after scandals under the previous mayor, Ed Kelly. As mayor he tried to clean up the city and cracked down on gambling.

After two terms in office the party bosses, led by Daley, decided that they had enough of Kennelly. Daley ran against him in the Democratic primary, defeated him and went on to serve as mayor for 21 years.

Under Daley there was no public recognition of Kennelly and he was mostly forgotten.

But now that will change, at least at RBHS.

“The board is delighted to have the complex named in honor of a distinguished civil servant,” said District 208 school board President Matt Sinde in a press release. “We commend members of the Kennelly family for contacting us and making a generous offer to the school district.”

The agreement does not limit or forbid RBHS from soliciting other donors or advertising sponsorships throughout the athletic complex for things like the field, tennis courts, scoreboard or locker room.

The $140,000 donated by Kennelly will be used to help pay some of the costs of the new athletic complex, the price tag of which is expected to exceed $7 million. 

The school paid about $9,000 to run ads in the Tribune and USA Today. The $140,000 donation exceeds the $100,000 that Vernon Hills High School received from the Rust-Oleum Corporation in 2000 in exchange for the naming rights to its football stadium for 20 years.