Frank Kelley, Michigan’s 'eternal general,' dies at 96

Laura Berman, Beth LeBlanc and Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Michigan has lost its “eternal general." Frank Kelley, the state’s and the nation’s longest-serving attorney general in history, died at age 96, his family announced Saturday.

A political legend, the Detroit-born Democrat served 37 years as Michigan’s chief law enforcement officer from 1961 to 1999 under five governors in the era mostly before term limits restricted office holders to a maximum of two, four-year terms. No prior attorney general had ever served longer than five years, said Jack Lessenberry, who co-wrote the longtime lawyer's life story.

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley

Kelley’s children, Karen Kelley, Frank E. Kelley and Jane Kelley-Schott, said in a statement, "He was a great dad and husband, who had a great sense of humor. He was a loyal friend and mentor to many, he considered public service as an honor. He loved the law and his loyalty to the people of Michigan was unwavering." 

He died Friday evening, according to a family spokesman.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the lowering of U.S. and Michigan flags within the State Capitol Complex and on all public buildings and grounds Saturday through March 20 to honor Kelley's life and service. 

Kelley refocused the Attorney General’s Office to crusade on behalf of the public interest, especially on consumer protection and environmental issues.

“Frank J. Kelley was one of my absolute favorite people from whom to get advice, perspective or humor," Whitmer said. "He was a never-ending fount of wisdom and fun.

"From his college days to the battles he fought as Michigan’s longest serving attorney general, he always had stories and insight into the human condition and generosity of time. I know I am among countless, fortunate people who had the honor of working with the brilliant and irascible Frank J. Kelley."

Kelley made a national impact, too, as a former president of the National Association of Attorneys General, which honored him by creating and naming after him the Kelley-Wyman Award for outstanding service and national contributions by an attorney general. 

For 37 years, "he was a beacon to the state, a mentor to many and a valued adviser to notable public officials. And his energy and genuine passion for public service inspired countless others to likewise dedicate their talents in service to the people of Michigan," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a Saturday statement.

His grave site is on Mackinac Island, said Lessenberry, the co-author of Kelley’s book titled “The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation's Longest Serving Attorney General.” Kelley planned to be cremated and have his ashes interred there, he said.

The Kelley family will be announcing a memorial service at a later date. 

One of Kelley’s last public appearances occurred in the library bearing his name, as he attended a Jan. 14, 2020, press conference in the Williams building’s Frank J. Kelley Library where Nessel announced Michigan's lawsuit against 17 chemical companies accused of being responsible for PFAS contamination. 

Ahead of the press conference, Whitmer hugged the former attorney general for whom her mother, Sharon Reisig Whitmer, worked as an assistant attorney general. 

Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, center, examines some paperwork.

Kelley's investment in environmental justice at the department continues to bear fruits in Michigan, Nessel said, noting at least one of the environmental lawyers working on the PFAS lawsuit was hired by Kelley. 

“The only reason we can do the mission that we set forth is because of the great work you did many years ago,” she said.

Sander Levin, left, and Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

Kelley told The Detroit News in 2015 he was proudest of the talented team of lawyers he assembled as well as his influence as a fighter for consumer and environmental protection. He was the first state attorney general in the country to create divisions dedicated to the issues of the environment, consumer protection and criminal fraud.

As a result, in 1970 he sued four big retailers for high interest rates. In 1979, he created a white-collar crime unit. The next year he accused 62 Metro Detroit auto dealerships of price fixing. 

'Giant in American public service'

During the 2015 interview, Kelly was sharp, funny and still quick with a story or comeback as he promoted the book on his life. The longtime Democrat joked that he lived in serene comfort on a Lansing lake “like a Republican.”

As the state’s lawyer, Kelley worked with five governors, from Democrat John Swainson, who appointed him, through John Engler, his last boss in Lansing who called him the nation's "most distinguished attorney general." Kelly recalled in 2015 that Engler, a Republican, “loved every corporation he ever met.”

In a statement Saturday, Engler said there were times he and Kelley differed "on the wisdom of a decision but his office as a result of his leadership always represented the governor’s office with great effectiveness."

"I could not have had a finer lawyer," Engler added. "Frank Kelley was a joy to work with and through regular meetings with him my knowledge of Michigan politics was greatly enhanced."

Former Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat, said Kelley was a mentor to thousands of young lawyers, judges and aspiring public servants.

"Frank J. Kelley was not just a legend in Michigan politics, he was a giant in American public service," Blanchard said. "He belongs to an era of civility, decency, non-partisanship and respect for others and the rule of law.

"Frank ran his Attorney General’s Office with integrity and honor for four decades. Frank Kelley was a pioneer in consumer protection and environmental protection, indeed among the first champions in the United States."

After leaving office, Kelley went on to launch a Lansing lobbying firm, Kelley Cawthorne, with former House Republican Leader Dennis Cawthorne. The firm is now one of the largest lobbying businesses in Michigan.

'I loved him'

From the beginning, in 1961, he intended to broaden the scope of the Attorney General’s Office, to make it act on behalf of “the people,” rather than serving only as the corporate counsel for the executive and legislative branches of the state.

Nessel, the state's current attorney general, described him as the "quintessential public servant."

Over his tenure, he launched a hotline to fight consumer fraud; rules that the state no longer could enforce bans on price and brand-name advertising for beer, wine and booze; cleared the way for the speed limit to be raised on rural interstates; and sued tobacco companies to recoup state Medicaid spending for smoking-related illnesses.

Among his prominent efforts was fighting Consumers Power's nuclear power plant in Midland, which faced cost overruns in the 1980s. Kelley spearheaded the court battle that caused the utility to scuttle plans to complete the plant and led to lower power costs for ratepayers, according to regulators Kelley also played a major role in helping to pass into law the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act.

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the new U.S. energy secretary, said Kelley was her first mentor in state government.

"He wasn't one to back down whether it was wrangling with the utility companies or corrupt officials," Granholm said. "No wonder he held the record as the nation’s longest serving Attorney General for so many years.  Voters loved him and he loved them back. And I loved him, too."

In 2012, the Michigan Legislature designated the pedestrian walkway running east to west connecting the Michigan Capitol building with the Michigan Hall of Justice, where the Supreme Court is located, as the Frank J. Kelley Walkway.

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, said Kelley "was a remarkable man and led a remarkable life."

"He established the standard of conduct for Michigan Attorneys General," Schuette said. "Great sense of humor and a wonderful public servant. A legend in Michigan. He understood bi-partisan politics. We all will miss him."

Although he was born in Detroit and was the first in his family to graduate from college, Kelley decided to leave Detroit and become a small-town lawyer in Alpena. He was appointed attorney general by Swainson after the governor elevated then-Attorney General Paul Adams to the Michigan Supreme Court and won every re-election battle he waged.

His father, a bar owner and Democratic political appointee who admired President Harry Truman, inspired Kelley to work on behalf of the public. 

Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley, left, is seen here with Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin.

Before he even considered that goal, he was pushed by then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy invited him to Washington within a few weeks of his appointment, recognizing a potential ally in the then 37-year-old Democrat, also an Irish Catholic.

“Reach out against injustice wherever you see it and protect the public,” he recalled Kennedy telling him.

A career in politics

Kelley made one of his first political blunders in the quest for justice. Recognizing that Michigan's Constitution empowered him to intervene on behalf of the people anywhere in the state, he seized on the fate of Grady Little, a young Black man attacked and killed by a group of white men in a Palmer Park neighborhood in Detroit.

When the apparent killer failed to be prosecuted, Kelley pushed forward anyway, creating political enmity. The trial, with an all-White jury, was a farce that taught the new attorney general a bitter lesson: Seeking justice doesn’t necessarily mean it will be won.

Although Kelley’s intervention infuriated the Detroit police and White power structure, it established his sincerity in Detroit’s black community.

There would be other failures and political hiccups. 

In 1975, he supervised an unsuccessful digging expedition for the body of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in Waterford Township. The following year, he denied involvement with a Southfield prostitute when his name was among those in the $100-a-night prostitute’s shoe box files.

Kelley did once flirt with higher political aspirations. In 1972, he lost a challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Robert Griffin. 

But Kelley never aspired to be governor. This contrasted with his successors Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who served two terms as governor, and Mike Cox, a Republican who lost the 2010 primary to former Gov. Rick Snyder. GOP former Attorney General Bill Schuette lost his gubernatorial bid in 2018.

Michigan State University created the Frank J. Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession at its law school.

"Working with allies in the legislative and executive branches, he championed model laws that successfully passed, such as the state’s consumer protection act, freedom of information act, and open meetings law," MSU said on its website.

Kelley said he had an early flirtation with socialism. 

“My father told me I could be a socialist but to remember ‘your name is John Morgan and your address is the barber shop,’” he told The News.

The book reveals that Kelley lied about his age to work as a seaman on a Great Lakes boat, an experience that hardened him physically and helped mature him emotionally.

But Kelley said he became a political survivor because he was blessed with certain instinctual gifts, a way with people that enabled him to be elected class president seven times in school and attorney general 10 times afterward.

Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley and his family.

Kelley is survived by his daughters — Karen Kelley and Jane Kelley Schott, both of Naples, Florida; son, Frank E. Kelley of Lansing, and one grandson. His wife Nancy died in October 2015.

Cawthorne, the former lawmaker who worked with Kelley to launch a lobbying firm bearing their names, described the longtime attorney general as "one of the most kind-hearted, honest, ethical persons I have ever known."

"He was a true legend, recognized as such across the nation and deservedly so," Cawthorne said.