JFK returns to office 

Seeing as it didn't matter, the Democrats threw John Kelly a bone at their state convention last summer; they allowed him what seemed a worthless nomination for a seat on Wayne State University's unpaid-but-elected Board of Governors.

Why worthless? Traditionally, nobody pays much attention to those races, and whenever a candidate atop the ticket wins by a landslide, his party normally sweeps the university seats on the strength of straight-ticket voting.

Everyone knew Fieger would end up a grease spot on Engler's pockmarked road to a third term. Kelly, 49, now a poli-sci prof at Oakland University, himself saw his candidacy as a form of political science workshop. While the Fieg was spending millions, the slightly less rich Kelly annoyed his wife Toni by wasting $900 to print one-page flyers that said "JFK for WSU."

The morning after the election, running my mouth on WDET-FM, I noted that, as expected, Republicans had swept the education races, even beating U of M regent and suburban publishing power Phil Power. "Well, not quite," Craig Fahle, the morning anchor told me. "John Kelly won." (Two hours later a startled Kelly, not believing it, got the word from his students. He had won by 150,000 votes.)

That means that Wayne State Board of Governors meetings, known, appropriately enough, as BOG by the student journalists who cover them, are apt to get more interesting. Winston Churchill had about four new ideas a day. That's Kelly on Thorazine. His fellow governors and WSU prexy Irvin Reid are about to get a workout.

Not only is John Francis Kelly interesting; on paper, he ought to be an ideal candidate for the battered Michigan Democrats. He has a law degree, a Ph.D., an Irish name, a wife and two cute daughters. Though a liberal and a stout supporter of unions, he's also an expert on foreign policy issues and a proud major in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Elected four times to the state Senate from the east side, mainly with black votes, he now teaches political science partly by getting kids involved in real campaigns. He has ties to each of the state's three major universities, having earned a degree from each.

He has a marvelous sense of humor and an uncanny ability to mimic voices from Coleman Young's to Geoffrey Fieger's. Yet he has a few flaws that have worked to keep him in the minors. He is easily bored by fools and dim bulbs, species the political world tends to attract, and often goes off in too many directions. "He is a person with a hummingbird mind and a whippoorwill mouth," an enemy once sneered.

Worse, he has his own brand of integrity. Ten years ago, everyone knew the Detroit papers' attempt at a merger was a perversion of the law designed to preserve independent editorial voices in small towns, not make huge corporations richer.

Yet the politicians also recognized those corporations' financial clout, not to speak of their ownership of two powerful propaganda machines. They stayed silent, or supported their greed. Except for Kelly who, with a suburban publisher and one or two camp followers, took 'em on, founding a group called Michigan Citizens for an Independent Press, and getting the U.S. Supreme Court to look at the case.

He very nearly beat the monster. The Supremes deadlocked, 4-4, with one justice declining to take part. His effort had cost the megalomaniacs money, and earned him their lasting hatred; he knew both "independent editorial voices" would do whatever they could to defeat him from then on, even if he ran against a baby raper.

Four years ago he gave up his safe state Senate seat to stage a quixotic run for the nomination for the U.S. Senate. The field was crowded, and he was obliterated, and most thought that the end of him. Kelly cycled down to two or three full-time careers; practicing law, teaching, helping his girls with sports.

Now, however, he is one of eight officials charged with overseeing Wayne State University. During the presidency of skilled political operative David Adamany (c. 1742-1997) the BOG was well trained; after intense free and fair debate and half a cup of coffee, they generally unanimously approved whatever he wanted.

When he retired, they selected Irvin Reid, president of Montclair State University in New Jersey, as successor, and while there have been murmurs about his decision to upgrade sports, starting with hockey (!), not much has changed. Guess what. Kelly won't see his job as pro forma. What he wants to do, for starters, is capture Tiger Stadium. "Why not? I am dead serious about this. What else is going to happen to it?" Why not pick up a vacant major league stadium if Wayne is major league serious about sports?

Beyond that, he'd push the envelope on the mission of what has become, largely unnoticed, one of the nation's major urban universities. He would increase financial aid for middle-class families and give credit for technical skill backgrounds to other Detroiters.

If anyone listens, Kelly may be the best thing to spur debate on higher education issues since Father Gabriel Richard started what became a small college in Ann Arbor. There is a danger; he is too capable of pushing too many new ideas too fast. John Baby, work with us here. If you do, it could be exciting.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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