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Jon Kelly

The Sky's the Limit

By Steve Dallape

“Don’t forget your small-town roots, but don’t let them hold you back from doing anything you want."

Growing up in Vandalia, Jon Kelly enjoyed the small-town life, but he knew that there was a whole world out there, waiting to be explored.

The 1985 graduate of Vandalia Community High School was accepted to the University of Illinois’ prestigious College of Engineering, but decided to put off entering the U of I, so that he might take advantage of an opportunity to spend a year living in Mexico City as an exchange student. “They call that a gap year now. At the time, my father called it a bad idea,” he recalls.

But the decision to go to Mexico turned out to be one of the most important of his life. “My time in Mexico was a pivotal time. It changed my outlook on the world and, honestly, it changed what I wanted to do,” he says. He returned from his gap year still desiring a career as an aerospace engineer, but now he was thinking globally and not just locally.

“That was a big change, obviously, going from a town of 5,000 to Mexico City and living in what was, at that time, the second largest city in the world,” he says. “But I came back with a lot more confidence.” He used that confidence to help him graduate from U of I with a degree in Aerospace Engineering. And his new-found global perspective inspired him to take a minor in International Relations, and to complete two internships with the Spanish Ministry of Defense in Madrid.

Ready to graduate from U of I, Jon’s future looked bright. He had a clear idea of what he wanted out of his career and his life, but around that time the aerospace industry entered something of a downturn. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Iron Curtain with it, reducing the need for new defense projects. Government-funded space research and exploration were also curtailed, due to the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy.

But, Jon was undaunted. He switched gears and went to work for an oilfield services company, spending two years in Argentina and Mexico doing oil exploration. By the time he returned to the United States, the oil exploration field was also in a decline, so Jon made another move. He began working for Andersen Consulting (now known as Accenture), first in St. Louis and then Chicago, for a total of thirteen years. He left Accenture because the amount of travel required kept him away from home and family too much. He spent time at several smaller companies before returning to Accenture almost eleven years ago to focus almost entirely on the aerospace and defense industries. “I’m actually doing a lot more with my degree than I thought I would be,” he marvels. “When I was with Accenture the first time, I spent time with aerospace clients, but I spent time with a lot of different types of clients. Now, I’m really at home in the aerospace practice.” His clients include aerospace giants such as Boeing, GE Aerospace, Spirit Aerosystems and Northop Grumman.

Having come full circle now, Jon can look back on his life and career with pride. His success did not come easy, and he credits his Vandalia upbringing with providing him with the foundation on which to build the life and career he now enjoys.

At Vandalia Community High School, he says that he was the scholarly type, and something of an introvert. “I believe the word would have been ‘nerd’,” he laughs. He did, however, play football all four years of high school. “The nice part about playing in a small town like Vandalia is, everybody made the team,” he jokes.

His advice to the VCHS students of today would be, “Don’t forget your small-town roots, but don’t let them hold you back from doing anything you want.” He adds, “A lot of what I was able to do in life was because of the grounding that I got in Vandalia. Coming from a small town… I hold it as a badge of honor, honestly.”

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