Chair of Auburn Alumni Engineering Council reflects on historic first year

By Austin Phillips

Published: Feb 22, 2021 2:00:00 PM

Kenneth Kelly Kenneth Kelly

For Kenneth Kelly, ’90 electrical engineering, giving back of his time, talent and treasure is something he considers a duty and an honor. 

Kelly, who serves as the first African American to chair the Auburn Alumni Engineering Council in its 55-year history, has supported Auburn in a myriad of ways since his graduation more than 30 years ago, but he considers his time with the council as something extra special.

“My dreams didn’t take me this far,” said Kelly, who also serves as chairman and CEO of First Independence Bank, the seventh-largest African American-controlled bank in the country. “I never dreamed of being associated with such a distinguished group of CEO’s, corporate and institutional leaders, much less leading it. Each year, only seven of the most esteemed alumni of the college are selected to join into this prestigious council of just 200 members, and my hope is that my service, in this capacity, is a reflection of the entire group, and people recognize that talent and hard work comes in all forms.

“I am eternally grateful to so many on this council who invested in my growth and who mutually garnered my friendship. We are a group who believes in the Auburn Creed, demonstrates it, and that’s what I want my leadership to represent. Lead in a manner that is consistent with the Auburn Creed. It’s not about an individual, but the betterment of the group to support Dean Chris Roberts vision in the College of Engineering of being the best student-centered engineering experience in America,” he added.

It is his hope that students will take notice, as he did of those who paved the way before him, and choose to get involved by giving back to the institution that gave him so much.

“I allocate time, I allocate resources to make an impact on students coming along today with the hope that they see my involvement, along with all the other members, as role models in the Auburn Engineering circle of life to contribute to the Auburn Legacy,” Kelly said.

As his first year as chair of the council comes to a close, he said he knew it would be a challenge not only because of the precedent set by his predecessors, but because of his busy schedule in which he just completed a three-year term on the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Community Depository Institutions Advisory Council. He also serves on the FDIC Chairman’s Community Bank Advisory Committee, and is a board of director of the American Banker’s Association, which is the trade association for the banking industry whose members safeguard more than $15 trillion in deposits.

What he didn’t account for was a national pandemic.

But Kelly took the gavel and ran with it. He took over as chair after serving two years as vice chairman and treasurer during Walt Woltosz’s chairmanship. He was installed during the virtual 2020 spring meeting and conducted the fall meeting virtually. While it was disappointing to miss out on seeing all the other alumni council members in person, Kelly was excited that double the number of members attended the virtual event than the previous in-person event. And instead of postponing or canceling the council’s annual Awards Banquet, Kelly instead opted to host it virtually to ensure award recipients received their much-deserved recognition in a timely manner.

“I felt we should recognize those who have given so much and accomplished such great things today instead of putting it off until tomorrow,” Kelly said.

That decision proved to be the right one for Kelly during one specific moment in the awards ceremony. Brooks Moore, ’48 electrical engineering and one of the founding members of the council, was one of the recipients of the Distinguished Auburn Engineer award and several of his family members were able to attend virtually, with one even commenting on the awards chat.

“Congrats, Papa! We’re so proud of you! Love you!” the chat read.

“That’s the epitome of why you do those things, the fact that we are repeating that moment shows the impact on his family and the Auburn family – an impressionable moment” Kelly said.

As Kelly looks forward to the final year of his two-year term as chair of the council, he’s confident that it won’t be another 50 years before another African American alumni leads the council as chair.

“For a kid like myself, growing up in Eufaula, Barbour County, being a student at Auburn was very important to me. There are many Kenneth Kellys out there, they just need to be nurtured, given an opportunity and held accountable to perform at the highest level. Which leads to the much needed discussion of African American enrollment from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective. My vision is that Auburn must reach 10% in short order, which will only rank us 5th among the SEC schools versus 12th of the 14 schools, based on today’s demographics,” Kelly said. “It’s incumbent on all of us as native Alabamians that each and every student, within our leadership sphere, has the opportunity to grow and blossom because at Auburn we believe in hard work, in education, in honesty, in a sound mind, in the human touch and in our country for all.”

Media Contact: Austin Phillips, austinp@auburn.edu, 334-844-2444

Recent Headlines