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Alumni Spotlight: Terence O'Malley, JD '95

Alumnus tells stories of Kansas City's past while practicing law with son

Nelly Don The Musical billboard

From School of Law e-newsletter - Summer 2019

A family story of fashion, crime and enterprise building, steeped in the rich culture of Kansas City, Missouri, in the early 20th century is so appealing to Terence O’Malley, jd ’95, that he has spent many years researching and telling the intriguing story.

This March, “Nelly Don: The Musical” ran to mostly sold-out crowds for three weeks, giving viewers a unique look into his great-great-aunt Nell Donnelly Reed (“Nelly Don”), a Kansas City dressmaker who sold millions of dresses, was kidnapped and later rescued after a former mayor and senator sent the mob to get her back.

“It’s not just a show about a woman who made dresses, but a show that captures the feeling of Kansas City back in the day,” said O’Malley, who practices as an estate planning and probate administration attorney when not working on creative projects like this one. “Part of my intent in writing the show was to make Kansas City a character, to really give people a sense of the vibe, milieu and the culture – the zeitgeist – of Kansas City during that time.”

Nelly Don – born in 1889 in Parsons, Kansas, was unhappy with the cheap, drab look of dresses most women wore around the house, so she started making her own clothes. She eventually started selling them and turned it into an enterprise.

“If she had made hubcaps or something more pedestrian than dresses, I’m not sure her legacy would be as sweetly remembered,” O’Malley said. “What appeals to people about the story is that Nell started the company before women had the right to vote and built it into this colossus of a manufacturing company whereby it was the largest dress manufacturer in the world.”

With a successful business and happy employees – mostly women – at a time when labor and crime bosses ruled Kansas City, Reed was abducted in 1931. Her husband called former mayor and U.S. Senator, James A. Reed, who used his influence to have the local mob arrange her release (she later divorced her husband and married James A. Reed).

“I was always interested in the story because I basically grew up with it,” O’Malley said. “It’s a great Kansas City story because it involves iconic Kansas City figures from the first half of the 20th century. The story involves some criminal elements from that time, and it’s also a great love story with emotional elements.”

O’Malley’s interest in the entertainment business was nurtured as he earned a bachelor’s degree in English and then moved to Hollywood, California, and worked at the Beverly Hills Hotel and auditioned for and acted in movies. He moved back to the Midwest and worked in radio and television news, reporting on Channel 49 in Topeka, before moving to Alaska for what he considered a more adventurous location. He eventually became press secretary to the Alaskan governor and served during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Done with drama that came with his frantic profession, he moved back to Kansas once again and attended Washburn University School of Law.

“I remember my first day of law school after the classes ended being able to go down into the library, open a book for the first time and just read and not have anybody bother me,” he said. “I remember luxuriating in that sense of being able to indulge myself in the intellectualism of it. I needed something to feed my intellectual cravings. Washburn definitely fed my soul that way as it does for a lot of students.”

O'Malley felt a strong reconnection to Washburn Law when his son, Conor O'Malley, '16, enrolled.

"I think I feel the closest to Washburn because they gave a full ride scholarship to my son," Terence said. "He deserved it. He earned it. But still, it was quite an honor. He graduated in 2016 and he now practices with me. It’s all come around full circle and it’s good."

Conor and Terence O'Malley

The elder O’Malley mixes his passion with helping families pass along wealth from generation to generation while telling the stories he wants. “Nelly Don: The Musical” may get another run in a bigger theatre and he’s working on another Kansas City historical play about the political relationship between President Harry Truman and political boss Tom Pendergast.

“We are going to try to capture the Pendergast era and how Truman benefited from it and how he remained loyal to the political machine and to Pendergast himself,” O’Malley said. “Also, how Truman was able to essentially remain above the fray when it came to the dissolution of the political machine, which ultimately resulted in the incarceration of Pendergast.”

If that story is received as well as his great-great-aunt’s story, Kansas Citians will have another unique look into a different time in their city’s history

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