Joseph J. Kelly, the grandson on his mother's side of immigrants from County Mayo in Ireland, was the first in his family to graduate from college.

While living in the Mayfair section of Philadelphia, he worked nights while attending the Abington campus of Pennsylvania State University because he could not afford the State College campus until his senior year.

"I don't know that he made much of his hardship, except that it reflects his great love of learning," resulting in a doctorate in English literature, son Brendan, a physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday.

On Friday, April 26, Mr. Kelly, 65, executive director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council from 1994 to 2011, died of cancer at the Haddonfield home where his family has resided for 35 years.

"His work strengthened state councils across the country, and demonstrated the importance of humanities funding by government and private funders," his son wrote in a remembrance.

"Most important to him was providing access to underserved regions and populations - to benefit individuals' lives and to connect institutions more closely to their communities."

His national standing was reflected in his election in the 2000s to the board of the Federation of State Humanities Councils, for which he chaired the legislative committee.

He had become a program officer in 1983 at the Humanities Council, which says it has an annual budget of $1.5 million and attracts more than 16,000 people to more than 500 programs in libraries, museums, and similar institutions in every Pennsylvania county.

Laurie Zierer, executive director of the council, said in a statement:

"Joe had a great passion for the public humanities and for Pennsylvania. He organized many statewide projects over the years spanning the bicentennial of the Constitution and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. He was recognized nationally as an advocate for the humanities."

Those with whom he worked showed their appreciation, his son noted.

Pennsylvanians for Better Libraries named him its citizen of the year for 2001.

Lycoming College awarded him an honorary doctorate in humane letters in 2011.

He didn't leave his work ethic at the office.

A poet, he published The Poet's Marketplace (1984) which, his son said, was the bestseller of its kind until supplanted by an annual Poet's Market series.

For The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 1999, he contributed material on the Irish in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Kelly was a 1965 graduate of Father Judge High School. He earned a bachelor's in English at Penn State in 1969 and a master's in 1973 and a doctorate in 1980, both in English literature and both at Temple University.

After earning his master's, he taught English at Temple, Penn State Abington, and Drexel University while working on his doctorate.

Besides his son, Mr. Kelly is survived by his wife of 34 years, Maureen; his mother, Lillian; two brothers and a grandson.

A visitation is set from 1:30 to 3:15 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at Kain-Murphy Funeral Services, 15 West End Ave., Haddonfield, before a reminiscence service there.

Donations may be made in his name to the Center for Literacy, Suite 201, 399 Market St., Philadelphia 19106.

Condolences may be offered to the family at

Contact Walter F. Naedele at 610-313-8134, or follow on Twitter @WNaedele.