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The death of longtime Salt Lake Tribune photographer Tim Kelly touched a personal chord for members of an exclusive Tribune tribe who grew up together at the once-family-owned newspaper.

Tim not only was a gifted artist, whose portfolio of memorable news photos over 30 years may be unsurpassed in Utah, he also was the rock, the protector, the comforter of the whole Tribune clan.

Standing about 6-foot-5 with a sturdy, muscular frame, the former football star at Judge Memorial Catholic High School was one of the strongest people I knew. But he was so gentle and unassuming that he seemed to have no idea of his imposing presence.

Early in my career in the 1970s, I covered a lot of police stories: shootings, standoffs, gang fights. Each night that I went out to a crime scene, I knew it was risky. There could be thugs, who hated journalists, looking for a fight.

The cops usually were too busy to worry about reporters getting harassed by a few wannabes. So it was a standard request among Tribune staffers who went out on those stories to have Tim Kelly be our accompanying photographer.

One night, I was on my way home when my car broke down on State Street at about 1300 South. It was after 1 a.m. I was stranded. As I got out of my car, I noticed a few scary guys across the street looking menacingly at me. It was an era well before cellphones, but the corner had a pay phone.

I called The Tribune, hoping someone would be there. Jackpot. Tim answered. He drove out in his scruffy yellow 1960s Volkswagen to pick me up. He arrived just as the intimidators began approaching me. When Tim got out of the car, they scattered.

Tim, who died Thursday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at 68, was always there for a colleague in trouble.

One of our staffers developed multiple sclerosis. She got progressively worse until she finally had to take a medical retirement. She remained bedridden at home until her death. Her husband, a slight man, was not very strong. So Tim would go to her house every day, ensure she was properly covered, and lift her from her bed to the bathtub. He would wait outside the door while her husband bathed her. Then, once she was properly covered again, he would carry her back to bed.

One night, when I was night city editor in the late 1970s, I answered a call about midnight from a drunken guy who phoned only because he wanted to scream at somebody. He launched into a profanity-laced monologue to tell me how much he hated The Tribune and everybody in it. I endured his abuse for about 10 minutes before using my own colorful adjectives and telling him to go sober up.

"I don't have to take that from you," he blathered. "I'm going to come down there and beat the crap out of you."

"Come on down," I said, my own testosterone acting up. "We're at 143 South Main Street, second floor. Come on down right now."

"I'm coming down right now," he fired back. "What's your name? Who do I ask for."

"Tim Kelly," I said. "Ask for Tim Kelly."

Tim was still there, sitting in the corner of the newsroom, filing some film and having no idea about my conversation.

The soused caller never showed. But as for Tim, even when he didn't know it, he was our protector.