By Katherine Hon
Historical research often focuses on buildings and major events. But some of history’s most interesting tales are about people. Ordinary and extraordinary people occupied North Park’s bungalows through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and two world wars. They worried about work, rejoiced in family, and suffered loss. The hard-working residents who first moved into North Park’s growing neighborhoods included teachers, clerks, policemen, and small business owners. Their stories are as varied as the architecture of their Craftsman homes.
A case in point is Harry J. Kelly, who was the first owner of an unassuming 1922 bungalow built on Dwight Street in Pauly’s Addition. Early city directories list occupations, and Harry Kelly was listed as a detective with the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) in 1923, the first year he and his wife Julia Helen moved to North Park.
Harry Kelly, the second son of an Irish blacksmith, was born in Piqua, Ohio, in 1891 and came to California at the age of 19. His first job in San Diego was a warehouseman for Cook-Haddock Co., a wholesale grocer. He joined the SDPD on Dec. 20, 1915, and served as patrolman, detective, chief of detectives, and acting chief of police in his nearly 30-year police department career.
A 24-year-old Harry Kelly made his first arrest just after midnight on Christmas Eve, 1915. He collared P. Finnegan, an Irish laborer, for disturbing the peace and regretfully had to take his countryman to the station. In the late nights and early mornings of 1916, Harry Kelly arrested waiters, cooks, and laborers for vagrancy and being drunk. One May evening, he arrested a chauffeur for reckless driving. He teamed with George Sears — who later served as chief of police from September 1934 to April 1939 — to arrest two men for battery. He teamed with others to make arrests for highway robbery and manslaughter.
In October 1917, Harry Kelly and George Sears, along with four others, were promoted to investigators. Kelly was later promoted to detective sergeant, and in 1929 he became a lieutenant. In 1932, he was promoted to chief of detectives; he led the bureau for 11 years.
When George Sears retired under pressure from the mayor in April 1939, Harry Kelly — next in rank below Sears — was named acting chief of police. He served until July 18, 1939. Though his tenure was brief, Harry Kelly was the chief for the key move of the Police Department into its new headquarters on Market Street. These historic buildings designed by master architects Charles and Edward Quayle and Alberto Treganza were renovated in 2013 to serve as The Headquarters at Seaport District, a dining and retail destination adjacent to the Embarcadero.
In the summer of 1939, when appointment of a new police chief was imminent, rumors of a Police Department purge flew. In a “local politics” column, Richard Pourade wrote: “Certain not to be purged is Capt. Harry J. Kelly, chief of detectives, who is acting chief of police. He has lots of friends, his honesty has never been questioned, and there is no officer in the detective bureau rated capable of taking over his job. And, if Captain Kelly is left in the chief’s job on a temporary basis long enough, there might not be any cleaning up left for his successor. Captain Kelly has been accomplishing very quietly many of the objectives of the new city administration. And he has come in for much unofficial praise from Navy officials on the way he handled the city on the return of the fleet.”
In July 1939, John T. Peterson was coaxed out of retirement by the city manager to serve as police chief, and Harry Kelly returned to his chief of detectives position. When he retired in 1943, the bureau retired the title with him, appointing his second-in-charge M.J. Donnelly to captain of detectives.
Around 1945, Harry Kelly and his wife left the North Park bungalow that had been their home for over 20 years. They settled in Berkeley, where he worked as a security guard. He died of cancer on Feb. 4, 1955 in Alameda and was buried with Julia’s sisters, brother and mother at Holy Cross Cemetery in San Diego.
If you are interested in learning more about SDPD history, visit the San Diego Police Historical Association’s museum at 4710 College Ave. Hours, entry fees and many interesting photos are on their website at sdpolicemuseum.com.
— Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-294-8990.