People liked to call Frank Kelley, the Eternal General.
Kelley served as Michigan Attorney General for longer than anyone else, from his appointment in 1961, to his retirement in 1998. In those 37 years, Kelley went from being Michigan’s youngest ever attorney general, to being the oldest man ever to hold the post.
In all, Kelley was elected 10 times.
Kelley’s most enduring achievement was establishing consumer protection and environmental protection divisions within the attorney general’s office.
One of Kelley’s successors as Michigan Attorney General, Bill Schuette says consumer protection is a key part of Kelley’s legacy.
“There was no such thing as consumer protection when I got started. The words weren’t even in general use. Environmental protection was not in general use. There wasn’t one environmental lawyer of distinction in Michigan or in the country when I got started,” Schuette said.
“Because of this commitment to consumer protection, it’s a part of every division of attorneys general across America. So, that’s a terrific statement and testament to Frank’s durability and his qualities.”
A Democrat, Kelley served with five Michigan governors of both political parties. He said he was most proud of his ability to work with both sides of the aisle, something he said was sadly missing in Lansing today.
“Politics is something that’s based on compromise. Our idea of government in America is Democracy based on compromise. Too many people today don’t realize that. And so you should not only compromise, but you should remain friends and not be bitter over anything. We had that back in my day. But we don’t have that today,” Kelley said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer knew Frank Kelley much of her life, from the time her mother worked in the attorney general’s office as an assistant attorney general, to Whitmer’s own time as the leader of the State Senate Democrats.
She says one result of term limits is that fewer current state lawmakers are aware of Frank Kelley’s bipartisan approach.
“I do think with term limits and the continual change over in our legislature that maybe not enough people know what kind of public servants we used to have…and what the standard really should be….and how important it is to find common ground when we can,” Whitmer said.
On a cold October day in 2013, many of Frank Kelley’s colleagues, old friends, and others, gathered to name the walkway that connects the state capitol to the complex of state office buildings and the state Supreme Court building, after Frank Kelley.
Kelley himself used the occasion to sum up his feelings about life with a quote from Anne Frank: “I still believe…in spite of everything…that people are truly good…at heart.”
Though the politician in Kelley couldn’t help saying while laughing, “I also think all of you should be very grateful today because this is the shortest speech I ever made. Thank you very much.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated Whitmer's mother, Sharon H. "Sherry" Reisig, worked as a secretary for Attorney General Frank Kelley. That was incorrect. Reisig was an assistant attorney general.