In Memoriam: ‘A Zest for Life’ Remembering Kelli Kukura

Kelli always thought it was strange that obits were written to say nice things about the person who died and who now couldn’t care less. She wanted her obit to be about—and for—those she loves. And so, like many things Kelli put her mind to, she got her wish…

This, how Kelli Kukura began her self-penned obituary, is by all accounts the most appropriate and accurate encapsulation of her warm life and upbeat style. While everyone who knew her mourned her passing on February 17 following a prolonged effort to outmaneuver cancer, it was impossible to miss the compassionate vibes she sent out to comfort those she loved in the down arc of her days.

“Everyone, I am no doubt busy exploring heaven and being sure I am tucked tightly in the hearts of the people I love,” Kelli continued in her own obit. “I sincerely hope that by now and somewhere along the road, I told you how I felt about you, not once, but many times, through words and actions. If ever it wasn’t nice, you may have deserved it. Ha! But I hope you told me, too. If so, you made me a better person and more ready to step toward heaven.”

These qualities made her not just a powerful family figure and friend, but a force in the government affairs community as well.

“Kelli’s purpose for living was the elimination of barriers to greater happiness and future possibilities,” said Paul Meyer, NCLM Executive Director and longtime friend of Kelli. They worked side by side in the organization’s government affairs department, which she shaped from her arrival to the League in 2008. It followed a long tenure in public and government affairs roles at DuPont, and became a major evolution in League relations with the N.C. General Assembly. Ultimately, this led to how the League’s public and government affairs team operates today.

The executive director at the time was Ellis Hankins, who saw Kelli—already well aware of her acumen and personality—as an antidote to heavy issues before the organization at the legislature.

“I remember walking through an airport somewhere closing the deal with her,” Hankins recalled of her hiring in 2008. “It was clear to me she had the work ethic, the people skills. She was a fierce advocate. The lady was a diplomat. She could get along with anyone who gave her half a chance to get along with them.”

Hankins, who was previously the primary lobbyist for the organization, noted the importance of having a 100 percent dedicated government affairs team, powerful with Kelli at the helm.

Meyer joined the League in 2009 as chief legislative counsel, placing him alongside Kelli on the legislative front, where the complicated issues abounded: taxation and public finance, environmental, personnel, public utilities, annexation, and more.

“She had an innate ability to unpack a tangled-up mess,” Meyer said. She could also broker smart agreements on legislative language that defended the abilities of cities and towns. Her work helped to delay, for as long as possible, harmful changes in annexation law, for one—all the while cementing the character and ethics of the growing team.

Kelli herself described the work as “a blast.”

“I loved lobbying and crisis/issues management,” she wrote in her obit. “It was challenging and exciting, and I am proud my career was built upon honesty and integrity.”

Her style wasn’t just beloved on the government landscape; the whole of the League staff benefited from it, no matter the department they worked in.

“Kelli was wonderful and always there for you no matter what,” longtime League staff member Diane Godwin, the organization’s events and conference planner, said. “She would listen and help you solve whatever was bothering you. And she always remembered the things you did for her.”

Godwin recalled a stressful, daylong League event that taxed everyone’s energy but concluded without any problems. “The next day when I got into the office, there was a small gift with the kindest note, which I still have,” she said. “I have the gift in a special place, and Kelli will always have a special place in my heart.”

“It was just a part of who she was, to show appreciation,” said NCLM Executive Liaison Jennifer Webb, a close friend to Kelli for 25 years. Even in some of the more difficult endurances with health, Kelli maintained it, Webb said.

Not just with people, either, Webb noted. “She was the biggest, craziest person for picking up strays,” Webb explained. Many a dog and cat benefitted from the just-in-case pet supplies Kelli kept in her automobile. “Who rides around with extra leashes and stuff in her car?” Webb said with a fond laugh.

“That’s how I got the dog I have now,” she added.

Webb and others also recalled the sense of humor Kelli weaved through her personal and professional life—even partly responsible for embedding an actor, dressed as William Wallace from Braveheart, complete with the kilt and battle paint, into certain League programming. Others recalled how she could round a corner at the Legislative Building and lob a quick-witted joke into a group of conversing lobbyists and coolly walk away from the explosion of laughter.

Kelli continued with the League until moving on to Duke Energy as its Director of Government Affairs in 2013, serving in that role for more than six years before rejoining the League in mid-2019 as its Learning and Development Strategist.

Due to her health, she eventually directed full focus to her family and close friends.

“My husband, John, has endured so much, more than anyone will ever know,” Kelli wrote. “But he has not missed a beat in caring for me and for our kids. I am so proud of the father and husband he is. I will sure be busy lobbying God on an easy, fun next season of life for my best guy.”

She was first diagnosed with stage-three cancer in 2004, when her children—Katelin Elisabeth and John Cole—were 6 and 3, respectively. “I prayed every single night for years that I could get 10 years out from diagnosis, to try to get the kids ‘mostly’ raised so that the impact on them would be lessened. As I write this, they are 23 and 20.”

“Memories of her zest for life and positive energy will continue to inspire us to learn and grow, so we can become the best versions of ourselves,” Meyer said.

Said Kelli, “More love always heals. That’s what a long goodbye has taught me. That love always always always outweighs the sorrow.”

The hearts and minds of everyone at the League will always be with Kelli and her family.