Former Mich. lawmaker 'just wanted to help people'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Whether seeking measures in the Michigan legislature or tending to struggling communities abroad, John Kelly worked to improve the lives of others.

“He just wanted to help people,” said his wife, Nikki Williams. “It didn’t matter who you were.”

John Kelly

Mr. Kelly died Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, in Lake Orion. He was 69.

The Detroit native’s most visible role was serving four terms in the Michigan Senate.

Elected in 1978, the Democrat supported measures to help his hometown and was adamant about higher education, friends and relatives recall.

That meant speaking up and reaching across the aisle.

“When John got up on the floor of the Senate, people listened,” said Joe Schwarz, a former Republican state lawmaker who became a close friend. “He knew the issue and knew it well. He was trying to find a solution to a problem and not do a lecture.”

Mr. Kelly’s efforts sometimes attracted attention.

During a debate over a property-tax cut in 1991, he and colleague Gilbert J. DiNello got into a fistfight during debate on the Senate floor.

The next year, Mr. Kelly received a certificate from the National Archives recognizing his role in ratifying the 27th Amendment, which made it more difficult for members of Congress to raise their own pay.

While in the senate, Kelly also passed bills restructuring Wayne County's government, had carjacking declared a crime with serious penalties and led the fight to make it easier to try juveniles as adults.

Ultimately, his passion was service, daughter Dana Kelly said. “His favorite part was representing the people and making sure they had a voice. He represented an amazing district and he got to talk about a lot of diverse issues.”

Giving back also marked Mr. Kelly’s time in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Before retiring as a colonel, he served as a defense attaché on tours assigned to South Africa and spent seven years as a liaison to the Detroit Federal Bureau of Investigation and a task force officer to a joint federal law enforcement unit dedicated to counterterrorism research, according to a biography.

Recently, he worked to ensure more Africans had access to clean water through the National Defense University, his wife said.

“He became quite an expert in Africa,” Schwarz said.

Born Sept. 6, 1949, Mr. Kelly attended the University of Michigan and Michigan State University College of Law as well as earned a doctorate in political science at Wayne State University, where he was a graduate fellow specializing in international relations and diplomatic history, relatives and associates said.

He eventually taught at Oakland University and the University of Windsor, where he was a Fulbright Scholar conducting research on comparative federalism.

Mr. Kelly formerly served on the Wayne State Board of Governors and was vice chair of the Michigan Film Advisory Board.

Beyond those roles, Mr. Kelly loved traveling, learning, spending time with his family and meeting new people.

“He was full of life,” his wife said. “He had an energy that no one else had.”

Besides his wife and daughter, other survivors are a grandson, Jack Miller; stepdaughter Colby Frantz; siblings Maureen, Susan, Robert, David Patrick, Margaret and Kathleen; in-laws Jo Willson and Alan Kilar. He was predeceased by his first wife, Toni, and daughter Rebecca.

Visitation is scheduled for 2 p.m. Monday at Pier Park, 350 Lake Shore Drive, Grosse Pointe Farms. A celebration of life follows at 6:30 p.m.

Memorials may be made to the ACLU of Michigan, 2966 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201.