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Herb Kelleher

Obituary for Herb Kelleher

March 12, 1931 - January 3, 2019
San Antonio, Texas | Age 87


Herb Kelleher, the fun-loving and wickedly witty Founder, Chairman Emeritus, and former CEO of Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co., died Thursday, January 3, 2019. He was 87.

Herbert David Kelleher was born March 12, 1931, in Camden, New Jersey, and was reared in nearby Audubon, New Jersey, where he graduated from Haddon Heights High School. He earned a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University where he was an Olin Scholar, majoring in English, with a minor in philosophy. While at Wesleyan, Herb served as the president of the student body and excelled in numerous sports, and it was there that he met and fell in love with Joan Negley, who was attending Connecticut College at the time. Following graduation, Herb and Joan married and lived in New York while Herb attended law school at New York University, where he was a Root-Tilden Scholar. Herb was a self-made man, putting himself through school with scholarships and his unparalleled work ethic. He took that work ethic with him when he moved to Joan's home state of Texas, a place that he grew to love and cherish.

Hundreds of millions of Americans likely owe their first flight to the era of affordable air travel that Herb and Rollin King helped launch in the late 1960s on a cocktail napkin in a San Antonio hotel bar. He oversaw and personally fought numerous legal battles instigated by competitors who tried to ground the very idea of Southwest Airlines before its first flights took off in 1971 with a fleet of just three airplanes. Through decades of challenges and growth, Herb's infectious personality motivated the airline's Employees to build Brand loyalty in Customers that bolstered one of the world's most admired companies with decades of consistent profitability. And the original Texas triangle of destinations on that cocktail napkin remains at the heart of nearly 90 US destinations served by what is the now largest airline in the United States. The successful and magic mix of making flying both fun and reliable can be traced directly back to Herb's larger than life personality that shaped and galvanized a workforce around the gold standard of Customer Service in air travel by institutionalizing The Golden Rule.

Herb served as Southwest Airlines Executive Chairman from March 1978 to May 2008 and as President and CEO from September 1981 through June 2001. Fortune magazine, which consistently recognizes Southwest among the world's top 10 most admired companies, called Herb perhaps the Best CEO in America.

Herb received numerous awards and honors, including the U. S. Chamber Business Leadership Hall of Fame; CEO of the Year and one of history's top three CEOs, Chief Executive magazine; CEO of the Century, Texas Monthly magazine; National Sales and Marketing Hall of Fame; CEO of the Decade-Airline Industry; Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy; Bower Award for Business Leadership, Franklin Institute; Tony Jannus Award; Wings Club Distinguished Achievement Award; San Diego Aerospace Hall of Fame; L. Welch Pogue Award for Lifetime Achievement in Aviation, Aviation Week; Airline Business Award, Airline Business magazine; 2005 Global Services Leader Award; History Making Texan Award; the Business Halls of Fame of the State of Texas, the University of Texas, Texas A&M, and the City of Dallas; the Herbert D. Kelleher Servant Leader Scholarship, named in Herb's honor by the Austin Business Travel Association; induction into the Texas Labor Management Hall of Fame; induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame; induction into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine, Wright Brothers National Memorial; recipient of the Department of Homeland Security Distinguished Public Service Medal; an honorary lifetime member of the Transport Workers Union; recipient of full page USA Today "Thank You Herb!" ad from Southwest's Pilots union; induction into the AAF Tenth District Southwest Advertising Hall of Fame; Ronald McDonald House Charities Award of Excellence; induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, and, most recently, induction into the American Advertising Federation Hall of Fame and the Entrepreneurs For North Texas' Ring of Entrepreneurs. In 2014, Herb was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by Princeton University.

In July 2010, Herb was appointed Chair of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas board of directors. He continued to serve on numerous advisory and governance boards late in life, including the National Air and Space Museum, and Homeland Security and Advisory Council.

Herb, as he was called by the 63,000-plus current Employees of Southwest Airlines, the Company's Retirees, and even Customers and admirers of the business and cultural legacy he created and nurtured for decades, often said in recent years he was 'flunking retirement' as he continued to maintain an office at the Company's Love Field Headquarters.

Herb's vocabulary often challenged those around him to find a dictionary to decipher the layers of meaning that he beautifully conveyed in a quip or quote across a gamut of topics on which he regularly and voraciously read. He used a steel trap mind to catalogue thousands of names and faces, and he would never pass a chance to say hello, share a story or a joke, plant a kiss on the lips or give a warm hug. His laughter and legacy linger in the hallowed halls of the Company he built; his vision takes hold in the Leaders he shaped; his compassion and character resonate in the workforce he motivated.

Herb relished his private time with his family, who loved and adored him. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Joan Negley Kelleher, along with three of their four children, Michael Kelleher, Ruth Agather, and David Kelleher, and their spouses, Lisa Kelleher, John Agather, Kathy Kelleher, and son-in-law Dennis Stacy. He's also survived by his nine grandchildren (who lovingly called him Poppair), Kevin Stacy, Clara Kelleher, Caroline Kelleher, Michael Kelleher, Jack Agather, Merrilee Agather, Danny Kelleher, Maggie Kelleher and Mollie Kelleher, and numerous nieces and nephews. Herb was preceded in death by his daughter, Julie Stacy; his parents, Ruth and Harry Kelleher; his brothers, Harry and Richard Kelleher, and his sister, Ruth Adams.

The family wishes to thank Colleen Barrett, Melinda Russ and Vickie Shuler for the love and care they gave to Herb.

A private burial will be held on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, followed by a service of remembrance for friends and family at Christ Episcopal Church, 510 Belknap Place, San Antonio, Texas, at 3:00 p.m. that same day.

A public Celebration of Life will be conducted at a later date in Dallas, Texas.

Donations in Herb's memory may be made to the Ronald McDonald House Charities, M.D. Anderson, or a charity of one's choice.

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Suggested Memorial Donations

  • Ronald McDonald House Charities
    San Antonio, TX 78212

Arrangements By

Porter Loring Mortuary

1101 McCullough Avenue
San Antonio, TX 78212
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