Kermit Kelley, former mayor, dies

Published 9:57 pm Thursday, January 26, 2017

A former Suffolk mayor and School Board chairman died Sunday at the age of almost 97.

Kermit “Mike” Riddick Kelley served as mayor in the early 1960s and also was on the School Board. Prior to that, he fought in World War II and earned the Purple Heart, according to his son, Alan Kelley.

“When I was growing up in Suffolk, it seemed like he was out almost every night with some civic organization,” Alan Kelley said.

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There was an opening on the school board, and somebody asked the elder Kelley to fill it temporarily.

“Next thing I know, he’s chairman of the school board, and his signature is on my diploma,” said Alan Kelley, who — along with his four siblings — graduated from Suffolk High School, as did their father. The elder Kelley was a member of the class of 1938 and was believed to be the second-older living graduate prior to his passing.

After graduating from high school, Kermit Kelley attended Virginia Tech, where he was a member of the Corps of Cadets, the honorary research fraternity Alpha Kappa Psi, the German Club, and was vice president of the Peanut Club.

Alan Kelley said his parents married in 1942, just before they graduated from Virginia Tech.

“In those days, you could get kicked out of school for that, and they almost were,” Kelley said.

But they didn’t, and about a year later, Kelley was off to war. He fought in North Africa and Italy as the captain of what started out to be an anti-aircraft battery, the younger Kelley said.

“I guess they got the Luftwaffe (the German aerial warfare branch during World War II) under control and they said, ‘Here’s some rifles, you’re an infantry,’” Alan Kelley said.

Kelley was awarded the Purple Heart during the war and came home afterward. He went on to a career in accounting, and got divorced and later remarried.

Of course, public service was a big part of his life.

“He loved the city of Suffolk,” said his wife, Frances Kelley. “He was really active in doing everything he could be active in. He believed in doing that and giving of his time. He was just that kind of a person.”

Frances Kelley said her husband was involved in many civic activities as well as in the church.

“Young people liked him,” she said. “We always worked with the youth in church, wherever we were.”

He did tax work for free for many people, some who could afford it but also many who could not have otherwise afforded it.

“He just enjoyed doing that type of thing,” she said.

But he also loved time to himself.

“He was very private,” she said. “He just never wanted people to gloat over him.”

He would also deflect praise for his public service, Frances Kelley said.

“He would say, ‘As long as God gives us breath, we can always do something else,’” she said.

“He was an all-around good person. I think he’ll be missed greatly.”

In addition to his wife and children, Kelley is survived by 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, as well as another great-grandchild very soon to be born.

A memorial service for Kelley will be held at 3 p.m. Feb. 3 at Main Street United Methodist Church, 202 N. Main St., with the Rev. Myrtle Hatcher officiating. A reception will be held in the church fellowship hall following the service.