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From the archives: Searching for R. Kelley

A discarded piece of paper found in Detroit's decaying train depot tells the story of a man, a landmark, a city

By Charlie LeDuff
The Detroit News
Dorthea Kelley, 88, wife of Robert Kelley, holds the scrap of paper found by Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff, March 25, 2008, at her home in Charlevoix. The paper has her husband's signature.

Editor's note: This story, originally published on April 4, 2008, traces the last human evidence of the Michigan Central Station's past --  a train docket with a signature. 

Detroit — Blowing through the grand foyer of the decrepit Michigan Central Depot was a memento from a grander time.

It was a piece of paper, no bigger than a waitress's ticket, a scrap more or less; a remnant of a man's life.

The docket tells the story of a train that pulled into the northern yard on a hot and humid evening on Aug. 23, 1968, at precisely 7:15 p.m.

The docket was signed by one R. Kelley. It tells us nothing more.

Looking at this relic and the ruined building from which it came, one puzzles: How did we get here?

The docket, when looked at in this way, may offer some kind of explanation.

Looked at in another way, this bureaucratic form, this forgotten ephemera lying among the battered pipes and shattered walls of the depot has its own life; the last human detail in a building that saw tens-of-millions pass through its doors. It deserved to be returned.

Where have you gone, R. Kelley?

The search begins with a homicide detective, Mike Carlisle, the Detroit police officer of the year. "Follow the e," he said. The extra e in Kelley, he meant. The name Kelley is 10 times more rare than your run-of-the-mill Kelly.

"I came here through that station in 1969 from Oklahoma," he said, the nostalgia working on him like a narcotic. He smiled at the memory. "I was told there was work up in Detroit. I stepped out of that station with two suitcases and my wife's apricot poodle and a pink ironing board. I thought we had passed Detroit and gone all the way to New York City. It's not like that no more."

Opened in December of 1913, the Beaux-Arts building was designed by the same team of architects that created New York City's Grand Central Station. It would succeed for decades, but its doom was written from the start. Three weeks later Henry Ford would announce the $5 workday, igniting the boom of the car and the inevitable bust of the train.

People poured into Detroit from Poland, from Ireland and from the sharecroppers' shacks of Mississippi. Many came by train.

The American middle class was born, it thrived and now it totters. Consider that today a newly hired autoworker will make $14 an hour or $112 for an eight-hour day. Adjusted for inflation, that is $5.19 in 1914 money. A 19-cent raise in 94 years.

'Just trying to survive'

The Detroit News has a morgue, newspaper speak for the repository of old yellowing newspaper clippings. There was an R.B. Kelley who stood trial in 1965 for the murder of two civil rights workers in Alabama. The train tracks in Detroit were set on fire in 1966, probably by union agitators. The clippings from 1967 showed the city of Detroit on fire, a calamity from which it has never fully recovered. Clips from 1968 reminded one that the country was on fire. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered 40 years ago today. Vietnam raged. And one R. Kelley signed a train into Detroit's northern yard.

Also in the morgue were city telephone directories from 1968, which listed phone numbers and occupations. Detroit then was the world's factory floor, if the directory is to be believed. Horace Kelley worked at Ford. Evelyn Kelley worked at Cadillac. Archie Kelley worked at Chrysler. It showed eleven R. Kelleys living on Detroit's east side, the city's old Irish quarter.

Phone calls revealed nothing. WAlnut5-4571: disconnected. And so on. A drive to the old east side addresses revealed little more.

The home of Ronald Kelley on Goethe is gone. In fact all the homes on Goethe are gone, replaced by weeds and decrepitude. Grown men shamble around the neighborhoods with little to do. The unemployment rate in Detroit hovers at 15 percent, the highest in the country. The children are among the poorest. It goes on for mile after mile until it almost feels normal.

The door at the former home of Rufus Kelley was answered by Beverly Moore.

"R. Kelley?" she asked with bewilderment. "I don't know nothing about no Rufus Kelley. I just moved to this neighborhood." She knew little about the train station. She came here 30 years ago by bus from Birmingham, Ala. "We just trying to survive."

'You're chasing ghosts'

The last train left the station on Jan. 5, 1988, the 10:40 a.m. to Chicago. The doors were padlocked and the station was set-upon by vandals. They stole banisters, the copper wiring, the window frames, the brass doors, the marble walls.

R. Kelley may have worn a white collar or a blue one. Tracking his employment record proved impossible.

A spokesman for Conrail said the company did not have the old records. A spokesman for the Railroad Retirement Board said there were more than one thousand Kelleys who had worked for the railroad. "I'm sorry," he said. "You're chasing ghosts."

A call to the United Transportation Union yielded the first lead. According to subscriptions to the union newspaper, there are two R. Kelleys living in Michigan who had labored on the rails in some capacity. Both lived at the same address in Wolverine Lake. Robert E. Kelley born December 1920 and ostensibly his son, Robert J. Kelley, born July 1944.

Wolverine Lake is one of the distant communities in western Oakland County, a place people took their families and money during the great white flight. Today, it is a checkerboard of For Sale and For Rent signs. A knock on the Kelleys' door produced little more than an invitation to leave.

"I don't know what you're talking about," said Robert J. Kelley, an austere, thin-faced man. "My father never worked on the railroad. Can't help you." He did not want to see the train docket. He did not want to talk about the old days. He simply turned his back and shut the door.

As it happened there was no Robert E. Kelley born December 1920 living in Wolverine Lake. It was a clerical error.

Married to the railroad

So what of this Robert E. Kelley? A check of public records showed a man of the same name and birth year residing in Charlevoix, at the tip of the ring finger in the Michigan mitten. A long shot, but a shot nevertheless. A call was placed.

The creaking voice of an old woman answered.

"Mr. Robert Kelley has been dead for over three years." She said it forlornly.

Dorthea Kelley, 88, and her husband Robert Kelley, are seen in this undated handout photo from their wedding.

"Did he work for the railroad?"

"Yes he did."

"In Detroit?"


Dorothea Kelley lives in a neat yellow house on Upright Street. Her son Kim answered the door as Mrs. Kelley, 88, had recently broken her hip. She sat among a pile of tax papers. She inspected the signature on the docket.

"Yep," she said. "That's it. '68. My gosh ...'68."

Robert E. Kelley was born in Rockland, Ill. The son, grandson and great-grandson of railroad men, meaning the railroad ran in the family line as far back as the golden spike in Promontory, Utah in 1869, the birthplace of the transcontinental railroad.

Kelley made his way to Charlevoix in 1942 as a wartime enlistee of the Coast Guard. There he met Dorothea Taylor at the barber shop and they were married in 1944 at the old Methodist Church. In his wedding photo, Robert E. Kelley cut a lean, hard figure, with a pronounced Adam's apple and a crew cut.

The war would end and the whistle of the railroad began to percolate in him. The small-town life suffocated the young Kelley. He took a job with the railroad in Bay City and eventually took a conductor's job at the Michigan Central Rail Depot in the mid-1950s.

It was a career of helping pregnant ladies and children off and on the trains, he liked to say. His family stayed in Bay City and Kelley split time between his two wives, Dorothea and the railroad.

"I was small-town people," she said. "When I first went into that depot, I thought 'My Gosh' because the ceilings were so high. The ceilings were so high, there were birds up there. It was a beautiful big building in those days. Beautiful building. I know it isn't anymore because I've seen it."

Robert E. Kelley retired in 1983 and took his family back to Charlevoix. He settled down, became active in the church and the Masons. On occasion he and Dorothea would return to the place he had spent half his living days, a life nearly forgotten.

"He felt sad," the old woman said. "To see it like that, it made him sad. His fondest memories were of that rail station."

The building is by now a mocking reminder of a city that was once a beacon, a city and a building that gave Dorothea Kelley everything. But instead of bitterness, she offered hope. "There's still a lot of good in Detroit; don't be discouraged," she said. "You're all going to make it."