Local radio loses one of the good guys

What drove Paul Kelly to his death?



Christ, it was as big as a billboard and he didn’t even see it and it cost him his life. We may never know the answer when all is said and done, but it really doesn’t matter. Paul Kelly is dead.

Kelly was the news director and news anchor of KVEC-AM talk radio in San Luis Obispo. His show was informal and informative; Not serious, arrogant, or presumptuous. One might even say folksy, just like the community. It was what it was … not a sound of pretense.

Kelly’s co-worker Scott Taylor said, “He had an innate ability to draw an audience into the show, to find a lighter side to something. Everybody was welcome to talk on his show.�

A mere 18 months earlier, Kelly’s job at the Clear Channel radio station was to screen calls for those radio hosts he would eventually become. He grabbed what he saw as the opportunity of a lifetime when the news director position opened up: drive-time morning news program host for a big radio station in a small-market community that he loved. His show not only offered news of the day, but included live interviews with politicians like Romero and Maldonado, educators like Crocker, and the daily patter with traffic cop Morrow and grocery man Spencer. All was handled with humor, ease, and information. Kelly saw little need for being combative or self-righteously confrontational … he let you be the judge.

Kelly couldn’t hide it on the air — that he was sensitive, liked people, and appreciated that people liked him. For a guy who kept to himself, an awful lot of people knew who he was. And for a guy who never pretended who he was, he was no stranger to the Silver Screen, having played bit parts in “NYPD Blue� and “The Flinstones.� He also dabbled in financing, and was an annual player in making the Pasadena Rose Parade happen.

But radio quickly became his life; a way to make a difference.

“He wanted everyone to know that he would be at the station in case of an emergency,� said KVEC talk show personality Dave Congalton.

Paul and KVEC news were on their way, having scored the station’s best ratings ever in its 60-plus years. KVEC and the community finally found a home for a spokesman who was dedicated, professional, and fair.

“It looked like we finally got a winner in Paul, who made it clear he was going to stay,� said Congalton.

Paul Kelly was 46 when he died. On the eve of his death he attended a private party thrown by the Hearst family, who was celebrating the ranch conservation deal. Guests that Saturday, March 19, included Abel Maldonado, Sam Blakeslee, Jerry Lenthall, and Pat Hedges.

“I heard he was bragging about it. He loved doing the hobnob thing,� said Taylor.

The event, held under a big tent on Steve Hearst’s San Simeon coastline property, started at 3 and was over by 10. There was lots of schmoozing, a dinner, and dancing. Guests served their own wine, beer, or soda.

It is not known when Kelly left the party, but he was seen drinking in a bar in Cambria later that evening.

An investigation as to Kelly’s whereabouts and what he was doing from the time he left the Hearsts up until the time he was killed is still ongoing.

What we do know is this: at 1:49 Sunday morning, Paul Kelly, without his seatbelt on, drove his ’95 Ford Explorer into the stalled trailer of a big rig at 55 mph without even braking. He was killed instantly, most likely from severe head injuries.

The accident happened just north of Harmony on Highway 1. There it’s a two-lane road with a double yellow line. Shawn Bentley, 36, was making a U-turn in his semi when it got stuck in the mud. Bentley was trying to get back north to Highway 46, just up the road. There was a light rain. Visibility was good despite the darkness and a little fog. Bentley’s truck and trailer, all lit up and ribboned with reflective tape, could be seen for at least a quarter-mile in each direction. During the 40 minutes Bentley’s truck was there, many cars had slowed and passed around the stuck rig. A few minutes before Kelly arrived, deputies from the SLO sheriff’s office inadvertently came upon the scene. They were putting flares on the south side of the truck when Kelly drove toward them from the north. They tried to wave Kelly off with flashlights, but to no avail.

It was as if that truck as big as a billboard wasn’t there. Aside from the countless questions, the CHP will be looking at three factors: alcohol, drugs, or a medical condition, like a heart attack. Maybe Kelly was distracted or fell asleep. Mixing early-morning work hours with a regular routine can be a killer.

Kelly had previously lost his parents and his brother. His closest family member is a cousin. No public services will be held.

We’ll find out in a few days what might have contributed to Kelly’s death, but we may never know why he didn’t see the truck.

In the end it won’t really matter. The community has lost a voice and a good friend. Said his fellow talk-show colleague Dave Congalton, “Paul was one of the good guys.�

Managing Editor King Harris can be reached at [email protected].

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