At Home with Florida Atlantic University’s First Family

On John Kelly: Hugo Boss shirt, Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Collection pants and sport coat, Saks Fifth Avenue, Boca Raton On Carolyn Kelly: Nicholas floral lace dress, Saks Fifth Avenue, Boca Raton
Photo Credits: Jerry Rabinowitz

The Eleanor R. Baldwin House has seen its share of events—from the sublime to the curious— since opening in 2002. Early on, in 2003, it was the backdrop for a dinner honoring Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel. More than a decade later, in the summer of 2016, it had the dubious distinction of harboring two Pokémon stops on the Pokémon Go app. “I kept noticing people stopping at our front gate,” Carolyn Kelly, Florida Atlantic University’s first lady, says, laughing. “They thought it was a public space. They didn’t realize it was a private residence.”

Whether you’re an invited guest or someone trying to “catch ’em all” from outside the home’s front gates, the two-story, 14,000-square-foot Baldwin House cuts an imposing figure with its domed roof, arched windows, and Mediterranean-style portico.

But inside, it’s just a home, one in which FAU president John Kelly and his wife, Carolyn, are raising their daughters—15-year-old Carly and 4-year-old Stella—and a trio of rescue Norfolk Terriers named Sherlock, Holmes, and Mr. Fox.

Stella Kelly sits atop a mosaic of the Florida Atlantic University seal in the home’s rotunda.

It’s where Stella went from crawling to walking across a 2,000-pound mosaic of the university seal, and where she plays on sunny afternoons near the bronze fountain in the backyard. It’s where Carly can walk to and from Alexander D. Henderson University School/FAU High School, where she’s dual-enrolled this year, taking both high school and college-level courses on the same campus her father is charged with running.

It’s where the girls can relax on the porch swing with their mother, and where their father can stop by to read a bedtime story between late meetings, share Chinese takeout and a family flick, or work in the garden.

At the same time, it’s a place for university banquets under the chandeliers in the Grand Room, donor gatherings in the 20-seat dining room, or casual alumni affairs on the terrace.

Carolyn’s solution for balancing a house that sits in the middle of the bustling Boca Raton campus and at the intersection of familial love and university life? Furniture with storage. Like any family, she explains, the signs of kids and dogs are everywhere. When the time comes to welcome guests, Carolyn says she “scoops it all up” into pieces purchased for just that purpose.

The house is a key part of a perks package for Florida Atlantic University’s first family. But when Dr. John Kelly was named president in January 2014, it was a tough time to be an FAU Owl. The university was ranked tenth among 11 Florida institutions, the football team hadn’t seen a winning season in several years, and local newspapers were running stories about a stadium sponsor sullied by rumors of humanrights abuses.

Still, Kelly publicly pledged to make “FAU the fastest-improving university in America.” Two years later, the Florida Board of Governors ranked FAU as the state’s top-performing public university—silencing critics and garnering $25 million in performance-based grants from the legislature.

A rise like that doesn’t come easily. Did it take blood? Sweat? Tears? “All that and more,” the president says with a smile. “But to that mix you’ve got to add joy. You can’t let these kinds of challenges be a hammer over your head. You have to let it be the thing you can’t wait to get up with.”

The Grand Room is the main entertaining area for cocktail parties, which often spill onto the adjoining terrace (left). It features two large staircases and a soaring ceiling dotted with chandeliers.

This mindset has guided Kelly from an early age. Although his father urged him to study engineering at Clemson University, Kelly majored in horticulture instead. “My first job was in a greenhouse in Easley, South Carolina,” he says. “Every day, the temperature was well over 100 degrees. I learned to outwork other people in spite of the conditions, and I loved every bit of it.”

Kelly was unsure about his postgraduate path until an advisor encouraged him to pursue an advanced degree at Ohio State University. “All of a sudden, I was living and learning with people from all over the country and around the globe,” he says of the experience. He delighted in making new discoveries, and this enthusiasm often kept him working in his lab late into the night. “It gave me a real love for the world of academia,” he says.

Not long after Kelly received his Ph.D. in agriculture, his alma mater came calling. He returned to Clemson, spending 28 years there as an administrator and ultimately a university vice president. It was during that time he met Carolyn. “When I saw him for the first time, the governor was grilling him at a budget meeting on live TV,” she recalls. “It was quite the spectacle.” A week later, he asked Carolyn on their first date: a Clemson University football game in 2005. They were married in 2008.

When Clemson hired James Barker as president in 2000, he tapped Kelly to help transform the school—then ranked seventy-eighth in the U.S. according to U.S. News & World Report— into one of the nation’s top 20 universities. It took 14 years. “It was a long experience but it was driven by the passion and love of getting better at everything you do,” Kelly says.

When Kelly was offered the FAU presidency by a unanimous vote of the university’s board of trustees, he felt prepared to apply his success at Clemson to the floundering institution. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get to work,” he told the board, according to the Sun Sentinel. “I’m ready to go.”

Being ready to go was tougher for Carolyn, who was employed as the director of South Carolina’s Coastal Program. She enjoyed her work and felt pride in being the first woman to serve in the agency’s top spot. But, she was thrilled for her husband and took heart in FAU’s proximity to the beach. “Being near the ocean was part of our deal,” Carolyn recalls. “When this offer came up, it was hard to say no.”

Kelly had his work cut out for him when he arrived on campus in March 2014. “We were ranked tenth in the state metrics,” he explains. “Then two years ago, we went from tenth to fifth.” By 2016, FAU had moved into first place, thanks to big gains in areas like graduation rates, which improved from 45 to 48.9 percent over one year.

But by 2017, the university had slipped back to seventh place. Kelly admits it’s hard to stay on top when schools like the University of Florida can outspend FAU with ease. “You come and go
in those metrics,” he says, emphasizing that progress is still being made, especially in fundraising.

Kelly’s goal now? “It’s constantly, passionately continuing to ask: ‘What can we do to keep getting better and better?’” he says. His commitment to FAU’s improvement is outlined in a 10-year strategic plan known as The Race to Excellence, and he’s aware it’s a race he can’t run alone. That’s why he’s dogged about empowering his staff—from the classroom to the athletic field—to achieve lofty goals.

Consider Kelly’s devotion to furthering research at FAU. He recently tasked Vice President of Research Daniel Flynn with growing expenditures to $100 million by 2020, while also challenging him to think about how to get from $100 million to $200 million. It’s a practice Kelly says he does with all of his staff members. “You  can get wide-eyed on those goals, but
if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you get there?” he asks. “You’re not going to meander to greatness.”

Kelly’s also committed to athletics. New head coach Lane Kiffin, who boasts impressive credentials from the SEC and the NFL, is leading the Owls’ 2017-18 football season. “I didn’t hire Lane to win three games,” he says. “I want him to be successful.” To help sow those seeds, Kelly is overseeing an ambitious new building project: the $40 million Schmidt Family Complex for Academic and Athletic Excellence, scheduled to open in summer 2018.

Beyond FAU’s metrics, Kelly has a sincere desire to serve his students. That’s why he’s adamant about the Schmidt Complex’s moniker as a success center for all students—not just athletes. “It’s about giving you the tools to be resilient as a person,” he explains. “Whatever happens to knock you down, you’re going to be able to come back from it. We’re going to give you the support to be successful here at FAU, and in life beyond FAU.”

In many ways, Kelly is still that teenaged greenhouse grunt, that graduate student last to leave the lab. “It’s still not unusual for me to be here working until three o’clock in the morning,” he admits.

Luckily, the Baldwin House’s location makes it easier to put in a late night and be ready for action the next day. It’s a place to schmooze, entertain, throw parties, but it’s also the first family’s refuge in the midst of the hustle and bustle. “If I was several miles away, there would be sacrifices I’d have to make,” Kelly says. “Here, I can come home and see my daughters for 15 minutes at least before bedtime.”

Dr. Kelly often cooks for his girls on the new outdoor grill and hones his green thumb in the garden, where he’s planted various fruit trees and incorporated tree-rooted orchids.

The Kellys are the third family to live in the Baldwin House, but they’ve made the home their own. Carolyn has overseen the project, adding an outdoor barbecue area (where her husband delights in grilling), brightening up the Temple Dining Room, and displaying the university’s collection of paintings by Floridian artist A.E. “Beanie” Backus. Although the works depict an old Florida that’s hard to spot in modernday Boca Raton, they remind Carolyn of the South Carolina coastline that’s so close to her heart. “They make it feel like home,” she says.

The yard allows Kelly to return to his horticultural roots. “I’ve done a lot of planting here,” he says with pride, pointing to banana, mango, and papaya trees off the back porch. The front walkway features an array of tree-rooted orchids that owe their livelihood to Kelly’s green thumb. “They’re survivors of the various events we host here,” he jokes. “Some were gifts and some were centerpieces. But as soon as they start to go, I’m outside fixing them to a tree.”

Baldwin House is the ideal venue for the Kellys to throw all kinds of university functions, from donor dinners and away game watch-a-thons, to backyard barbecues and holiday parties—all of which are family friendly. That’s just the way the Kellys like it: a family affair. “The other night we were hosting the Sandlers, who made a $7 million gift to the university,” Carolyn says, recalling a recent formal event at Baldwin House.

“Just as Harvey Sandler was getting up to speak, our dogs started barking. Everyone was a little startled, but [we] were like: ‘Well, this is our home—dogs, kids, and all.’” From work life to home life, John and Carolyn Kelly see it all as a journey rather than a destination. “Even the Race to Excellence has no finish line—and that’s a good thing,” Kelly says. “What matters most are the successes that come along the way.”


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