Michigan’s longest-serving attorney general, Frank Kelley, dies at 96

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A former Michigan attorney general and the longest person to hold that title has died.

Frank J. Kelley’s family announced his death on Saturday March 6th. Kelley, Michigan’s senior attorney general, nicknamed “Eternal General,” was 96 years old and has lived in Naples, Florida since moving in 2020.

Kelley died of natural causes on late Friday, March 5th.

Kelley was born in Detroit and graduated from the University of Detroit. He was Alpena’s city attorney before Governor John Swainson appointed him attorney general in 1961, replacing Paul L. Adams when he became a judge on the Michigan Supreme Court.

Kelley, a Democrat, retired in 1999 after serving as the Michigan attorney general for 37 years. He had been elected to the position ten times.

Kelley’s family said he was especially proud to set up the first consumer and environmental protection departments in the country. He was also a leader in Michigan civil rights issues.

Kelley worked under five governors from various political parties.

“Kelley was known to stand up for the little guy, much to the dismay of utility, insurance, polluted company and retailer executives,” his family said in a prepared statement. “He was instrumental in bringing the Open Sessions Act and Freedom of Information Act into effect. He was actively involved in the dissolution of the national tobacco regime.

“He has never forgotten that he is the ‘Ombudsman’.

Kelley was also a past president of the National Association of Attorneys General, which honored him by naming the association’s award for outstanding service the Kelley-Wyman Prize.

Attorney Frank Kelley debates John Smietanka in this 1989 file photo in front of the Grand Rapids Bar Association. (MLive file photo)BPN

After leaving office, Kelley returned to private practice and co-founded the Kelley Cawthorne Company with former Republican House Leader Dennis Cawthorne.

Kelley is survived by three children – Karen Kelley, Frank E. Kelley, and Jane Kelley-Schott.

“He was a great father and husband who had a great sense of humor. He was a loyal friend and mentor for many, he regarded the public service as an honor, ”said the siblings in a joint statement. “He loved the law and his loyalty to the people of Michigan was unwavering.”

“Frank J. Kelley was one of my all-time favorite people I could get advice, perspective or humor from,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in the press release. “He was an infinite source 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 insights into the human condition and generosity of the time. I know I am among countless happy people who have had the honor of working with the brilliant and indescribable Frank J. Kelley. He will be missed, but his mark for Michigan will be felt – as generations have benefited from his leadership. His endorsement and advice to candidates like me meant as much to us as to the public we wanted to serve. I will be forever grateful to my friend, Mr. Kelley. “

Current Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel described Kelley as “an exceptional man, the epitome of public service and a legend of his time.”

“After serving 37 years as the Michigan attorney general, he was the longest-serving attorney general in the country when he retired in 1999,” said Nessel. “During these long years of service, he was a beacon of the state, a mentor to many, and a valued advisor to well-known officials. As extraordinary as his accomplishments were, Mr. Kelley will be best remembered for his humor, friendship, and humanity. He will be sorely missed. “

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said: “Frank Kelley paved the way for all attorneys general to become ‘the people’s advocate.’ He was the first to take on the full role of the AG in consumer and environmental protection, supply regulation and civil rights. He was a wonderful person and a very close personal friend. And oh yeah, I’ll always remember the Kelley joke. “

Former Michigan Governor and now US Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm said, “Frank Kelley was my first mentor in the state government and what a teacher he was, with an Irish gift for humor and a wild heart for the average worker. When I was governor, Frank would come into my office every few weeks with humorous advice on how to fight and who to fight. He wasn’t the one to back off, whether it was a dispute with utility companies or corrupt officials. No wonder he held the record as the nation’s longest-serving attorney general in so many years. The voters loved him and he loved them back. And I loved him too. “

Dennis Cawthorne, former Republican House Leader, said: “Frank has been one of the kindest, most honest, and ethical people I have ever known, in both his civil service and 15 years with me in private law. He was a true legend, recognized as such nationwide, and rightly so. “

Jack Lessenberry, Kelley Biographer, said, “Not only has Frank Kelley served longer than any other Attorney General in Michigan – he really invented the office in its modern form. Adding consumer and environmental departments before other states had them was a fierce civil rights advocate and the godfather of many careers, from Governor Jim Blanchard to Governor Jennifer Granholm. Most of all, it was defined by the title of our book – The People’s Lawyer. “

The Kelley family will announce a memorial service at a later date.

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