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One on One with David Kelsey

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — David Kelsey always knew he had options for what he wanted to be when he grew up.

On the one hand, he had a grandfather who had a general law practice in a big corner office in the 12,000-person town of Norfolk, Neb., and was a bigwig on the bank board in his spare time. His father also was an attorney of the same cloth. Then there was his mother who was a staunch Irish Catholic.

“So I could be whatever I wanted to be – a priest or a lawyer. ..You know, you were like in the third grade, and you knew you were gonna be a lawyer. Didn’t know what lawyers were, but … ,” says Kelsey, who has practiced law in Albuquerque for nearly 50 years.

The Basics: Born David Hadley Kelsey in Norfolk, Neb., on June 2, 1937; graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School; wife Barbara died in 2008; sons Tom, 49, Kevin, 46, and Mike, who died at age 24; and daughter Elizabeth, 29; eight grandchildren; no pets.
Position: Founding shareholder of Atkinson & Kelsey, P.A.; Kelsey has taught advanced family law at the University of New Mexico School of Law, and has lectured and written extensively on family law subjects for more than 30 years. He wrote the New Mexico Divorce Manual and co-authored the New Mexico Domestic Relations Manual. He has served on various nonprofit boards, is active in the Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, and is a Knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
What You Didn’t Know: “I have fought to lose weight for 35 years. For some reason, the last time I did a physical, the doctor very simply said, ‘Every five pounds you lose will put one year on your life.’ And I’ve lost 20 pounds. … I have a banana or an apple and a SlimFast for breakfast and lunch, and I have one evening meal. And I go to the health club every morning. I get up early.”

He had been driving across the country to his first job out of law school in Phoenix when he ended up here.


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“I was driving through Albuquerque, and my wife had a miscarriage, and I had Mike, the child who passed away and $28 in my pocket. So I got a job at J.C. Penney on Central, which is now closed.”

Meanwhile, he studied for the bar and in August 1961, he passed it. The Berlin Wall was also built at that time, so instead of going into practice, Kelsey found himself stationed in Baltimore for two years with the Army’s Counterintelligence Corps.

When he returned to Albuquerque, he first practiced personal injury law, then joined Bill Atkinson to form Atkinson & Kelsey.

It was 1973 when Kelsey decided the firm should specialize in family law, a rarity.

Q: Why did you decide to specialize in family law?

A: I really started specializing in that in the ’60s and that’s when the divorce rate blew up. It was wild. The divorce rate tripled. I was one of the first people to build a firm to do that. There were a couple of other people who specialized, but I was one of the first to build a firm.


Q: So, was it the divorce rate that led you to do th-at?


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A: No, no, no, no, no. Well, actually, in truth, the fact was in the early ’60s, in that blowup, mine blew up – I got divorced. And I was shell-shocked, and it dawned on me that very few were treating divorce seriously. People were doing bankruptcy, criminal law and divorce until they could get a respectable practice going. And it dawned on me that divorce is very important; people are bleeding going through a divorce. So that was the bucket of ice water that woke me up.


Q: What have you learned about your relationships with your own family members as a result of your work?

A: How much time do you have? Big, yeah. Your family is very important.


Q: What was your first job ever when you were young?

A: I delivered newspapers in Norfolk, but I also caddied. Norfolk’s where Johnny Carson was from. I caddied for his dad every Sunday morning for 65 cents, 12 holes. Now there’s a goofy aspect to that. Norfolk’s a town of 12,000 – you knew everybody. … So when (Carson’s) dad died, I was gonna call his mother, Ruth. I caddied for his dad for three years. So I called NBC to Johnny Carson’s office and said, ‘I’d like to speak to Johnny Carson. His dad died. I caddied for his dad in Norfolk, Nebraska. Got 65 cents for 12 holes. I want to talk to his wife, Ruth. Would you please (put me through to Mr. Carson)?’ Thirty minutes later, I got a call from Johnny Carson. … He said, ‘I knew it was real because only someone from Norfolk would know it was a 12-hole golf course.’


Q: Your office is filled with retablos. Are you a collector?

A: They’re mine. I made them. When my daughter was little, we started making some and we made like 20 different ones, and we sold them at the craft shows. I guess I’ve done it for 20 years. The point is, I’m a divorce trial lawyer. You have nothing to show for it except pieces of paper and mad people. And here, you have something you can show for it, you can touch and feel. My wife died in ’08, so in ’09 I made 400 because it was very therapeutic for me. This year, I’m doing 300.


Q: You’re retiring soon, right?

A: I’m retiring being managing attorney, active practice here. Now, what am I going to do? I may do mediation. I make retablos and play bridge. So I’m not gonna sit in a rocking chair. I play tennis.


Q: What do you think you will miss most about what you have been doing daily for the last 40-plus years?

A: The people sitting in those chairs (pointing to those across from his desk). I mean, we can all get out a calculator and figure out what child support is. … That doesn’t take any skill.


Q: You have been very successful in your profession and probably most everything in your life. Is there an area where that has not been the case, something that was a challenge for you?

A: I had a time in my life where – when men go through male menopause, they do a couple of things. Most of it’s having an affair. I would have been better off if I did that. I bought real estate – rented houses, fourplexes, duplexes. … I had a negative net worth for about 16 years.


Q: Does your faith play a large role in your life?

A: I go to Mass every morning. The son who died, he died in ’84 (from a brain tumor). He went to get a test. I took him to the hospital to get a test. … You had a sense it was bad. I didn’t know how bad. … Went up. It was Ash Wednesday. … This nun (Kelsey pulls out an old wallet-size photo of her) asked me if I wanted ashes. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take ashes. I’ll take any damn thing I can get.’ And believe it or not, I have almost gone to daily Mass since then. I’ve probably missed 10 times since ’84. … That’s an anchor that holds my life together.


Q: What in your life has given you the most gratification?

A: Having a good wife. I’ve had great judges, I’ve had terrible. I’ve been held in contempt many times. I have great successes and great failures. But I was one of the happiest men. I loved to go to work and I loved to go home. (He and his wife were married 36 years before she died in 2008.)