Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

June 24, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Doug Kelley and his life of activism

Doug Kelley admits to telling one lie in his life: Back in 1944, as a 15-year-old growing up in Chicago, he added a year to his age to qualify for a job. "Page at the Democratic National Convention," he said, standing amid perhaps the greatest collection of Democratic presidential campaign items in the nation.

His family were Republicans. But being at that convention and seeing Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated one final time changed Kelley's life. "I came home with an armful of collectibles," he said. Buttons, banners, you name it. Today, that has mushroomed into the most astonishing collection of political artifacts this writer has ever seen, thousands and thousands of items housed in a large, stand-alone building he calls, simply, "The Democratic Archive."

Walk into his private museum, and be prepared to see letters, T-shirts, primitive art and fine art representing every Democratic campaign ever, starting with Thomas Jefferson in 1796.

Posters. Paintings and photographs and murals depicting every one of the party's nominees. Winners get prominent display, naturally.

But there is also a huge "wall of losers," that includes not only the hapless Mike Dukakis and Walter Mondale, but immense placards showing now-nearly-forgotten men like Al Smith and John W. Davis. There is also a wall dedicated to the "Tragic Year — 1968." A poster of the soon-to-be assassinated Robert Kennedy stares ahead with haunted eyes; ones referring to Vietnam stir haunted memories. There are also several enormous posters of Richard Nixon, looking sneaky, or worse. "Would you buy a used car from this man?" one says. An even wickeder one shows a disgusted, very pregnant, black woman wearing a campaign button.

"Nixon's the One," it says.

One other Republican is more reverently displayed here, too: Abraham Lincoln. "I decided to make him an honorary Democrat," Kelley said.

Ironically, the man behind all this came from a Republican family. Doug Kelley is actually a Lansing native; his father moved the family to Chicago after the Democrats took power during the New Deal, and dad lost a political patronage job.

Two years after serving as a page, his son participated in a program called Encampment for Citizenship, where he met Eleanor Roosevelt. Those two experiences were the defining ones of his life.

"I decided to become an activist, to try to make the world a better place. Lots of us did, but 66 years later, I'm still at it." His activist credentials are fairly impressive. He served as the Peace Corps' first national community relations director, then went on to be the corps' first volunteer leader in Cameroon.

Kelley came home to crusade for civil rights, and be beaten bloody by "bottle-wielding racists," in Mississippi, where he was trying to establish a multi-racial encampment training program.

Later, he earned a doctorate from the University of Michigan, and eventually retired as director of community education for U-M's Flint campus. But meantime, he kept collecting.

Giant posters. Campaign biographies. Buttons and bows and bumper stickers from every campaign imaginable. At some point, he decided to collect campaign materials from every Democratic presidential campaign right down to Thomas Jefferson's first.

He also fell in love with a young woman named Mary Corsi, when both were fellow undergraduates at tiny Berea College in Kentucky. He proposed marriage in 1951. She said no. Years later, Doug ran into Mary in Ann Arbor, and again asked her to marry him in 1978.

This time, she said yes. By that time, she was a successful social worker and author. However, though the marriage is good, when asked if she shared her husband's love for political artifacts, she didn't hesitate. "No!" she said.

Not too many brides want to see Hubert Humphrey posters first thing in the morning. "So a dozen years ago, she started saying 'you need a building to put all this stuff in'" her husband said.

"Then a year later, she added, "and I'll pay for it." So the giant two-story building went up next to their home on a very ordinary street in a very middle-class section of Ann Arbor.

Sadly, perhaps, it isn't open to the public, except by special arrangement. Doug fears sticky fingers, or vandalism. Some of this stuff is clearly priceless.

Remember the famous newspaper headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman?" Kelley has the even rarer second edition, "GOP Wins White House." As every Democrat knows, both editions were gloriously wrong. Kelley is 83 now, and doesn't have that many campaigns left. Gradually, he is starting to donate some things.

He recently gave 200 Thomas Jefferson items to Monticello. The University of Michigan is looking over his Lewis Cass collection, and he is taking some rare Jimmy Carter items down to Plains, Ga.

Incidentally, I thought the most stunning thing was a complete voting booth from the infamous 2000 presidential election from Palm Beach, Fla., complete with "butterfly ballot" and ready-to-be-hanging chads.

I found myself wishing the Democratic Party, or the Smithsonian, would buy this collection and put it somewhere where scholars could use it and the world see it.

Does Doug Kelley have any regrets? Well, maybe just one.

"I gave Barack Obama bad advice," he said. "I met him at a rope line in Chicago and told him, 'I hope you'll strongly consider putting John Edwards on the ticket.' He gave me a look as if he was thinking, 'I know something that you didn't know.'"

One wonders if he really did.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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