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Welcome to the memorial page for

Judge William C. O'Kelley

January 2, 1930 ~ July 5, 2017 (age 87)

Senior U.S. District Judge William C. O’Kelley, former Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, died July 5 after a brief battle with cancer. He was 87.

A native of Atlanta, Judge O’Kelley was born on January 2, 1930. He was the only child of Theo Johnson O’Kelley and Ezra Clark O’Kelley.  He grew up in East Atlanta and attended Boys’ High School. His love of the outdoors led him to join the Boy Scouts, advancing all of the way to the highest rank of Eagle Scout. Working numerous jobs he sent himself to Emory University and Emory Law School. Education was extremely important to him.

He is survived by the love of his life, Ernestine Allen O’Kelley (Teeny), whom he met on a blind date. They were married for 64 years. The Judge adored his children and grandchildren, spending time with them at his farm on Lake Lanier or fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. He is also survived by his daughter and son - daughter Virginia Leigh O’Kelley Wood (Winston) of Paris, Virginia, grandchild Frances Daniel Allen Wood Bales (Mike), great-grandchild, Leila Elizabeth Bales, grandchildren Elizabeth Spenser Wood, Katherine O’Kelley Wood, great-grandchild, Virginia PiperLily Ruplinger; his son, William C. O’Kelley Jr. (Melanie) of Peachtree Corners, Georgia,  grandchildren, William Clark O’Kelley III, and Henry Brandt O’Kelley.

    Appointed to the bench by President Richard Nixon, Judge O’Kelley was confirmed by the Senate and took office in October 1970. During his tenure, he was entrusted by three Chief Justices -- Burger, Rehnquist, and Roberts -- to handle some most sensitive special assignments and to serve on committees involved in the administration of the federal judicial system.

He served as one of the first members of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, hearing surveillance cases during the Iran hostage crisis. In addition, he served on the Alien Terrorist Removal Court. He was elected by his colleagues in the Eleventh Circuit to serve as its first representative on the Judicial Conference of the United States, the administrative body of the federal courts.

    As a trial judge, he heard some of the most significant cases to be tried in Atlanta courts. In February 1974, Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy was kidnapped and held for two days by William Williams. After two trials overseen by Judge O’Kelley, Williams was convicted and received a 40-year jail sentence. For nearly two decades in the 1970s and into the 1990s, the Judge oversaw the long process of desegregating the DeKalb County School District. Judge O’Kelley also ruled in a copyright case of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

Judge O’Kelley took senior status in 1996, continuing to hear trial cases on a selective basis and sitting when needed with panels of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh, Third, and Sixth Circuits.

In addition to a distinguished legal career, Judge O’Kelley had a long career of service.  A longtime resident of Norcross, Georgia, he donated time to the Advisory Board of Wesleyan School. He was also devoted to Emory University, serving on their Board of Trustees. He received Emory Law School’s Distinguished Alumni Award and was named one of the Emory Law 100. In 2014, he received the distinguished Emory Medal from the University.

Judge O’Kelley served in the U.S. Air Force from 1953 to 1957 as a Judge Advocate. During part of this time he and Teeny lived in Morocco. After returning to Atlanta, he became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Atlanta-based Northern District of Georgia from 1959 to 1961.  He then entered private practice in the law firm of O’Kelley, Hopkins and Van Gerpen.

While at Emory, the Judge joined Sigma Chi Fraternity. He continued his work with the fraternity for the rest of his life. He served on the Sigma Chi Foundation as governor emeritus and was recognized as a “Significant Sig” honoree.  

Personally, the Judge enjoyed the great outdoors spending most of his weekends with family and friends on the lake or riding horses.  He often hosted countless fishing trips to the Homosassa Fishing Club and Alaska.  On the culinary side, he was an avid barbecue aficionado.

    A memorial service will be held at 1:00 p.m., July 22, at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the campus of Emory University, with a celebration of his life to follow at the Miller Ward Alumni House. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in memory of Judge O’Kelley to support The Judge William C. O’Kelley Endowed Scholarship Fund at Emory Law School c/o Office of Gift Records, 1762 Clifton Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30322.

Those desiring to send online condolences may do so at www.littledavenport.com

Little Davenport Funeral Home and Crematory 355 Dawsonville Hwy. Gainesville, Ga. 30501


 Service Information

Memorial Service
Saturday
July 22, 2017

1:00 PM
Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University
1660 North Decatur Road, NE
Atlanta, GA 30307


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