Tribute: William O'Kelley 51C 53L

William C. O’Kelley 51C 53L, longtime senior US District Court judge of the Northern District of Georgia, died July 5 after a battle with cancer. He was eighty-seven. 

A veteran of the US Air Force and the US Air Force Reserve, O’Kelley was in private practice in Atlanta from 1957 to 1959, and was an assistant US attorney of the Northern District of Georgia from 1959 to 1961, returning to private practice in Atlanta until 1970 when he was appointed to the federal bench by President Richard Nixon. He was assigned as a judge of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 1980 to 1987, and was chief judge of the Northern District of Georgia from 1988 to 1994. He assumed senior status in October 1996, serving in that capacity until his death. 

O’Kelley was recipient of the Emory Medal, the university’s highest alumni honor, as well as Emory Law School’s Distinguished Alumnus Award and the Significant Sig Award from the national Sigma Chi Fraternity. The Judge William C. O’Kelley Endowed Scholarship Fund was created in his honor, spearheaded by Emory alumni who served as his law clerks. He supported his alma mater as a mentor to students and through service on the Law Advisory Board, the Emory Board of Trustees, and its finance, campus life, and executive committees. 

O’Kelley presided over pivotal trials including the kidnapping trial of Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Reg Murphy, the DeKalb County Schools desegregation case, and the copyright case involving Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech.

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