'The Life and Times'


Book offers inside look at Frank Kelley, the Eternal General

by Linda Laderman
Legal News

­During his nearly four decades as Michigan’s longest serving attorney general, Frank J. Kelley and his opinions prompted an abundance of regional and national news coverage. Kelley held the attorney general’s office from 1961 until 1999. Prior to Kelley, the longest any attorney general had served Michigan was five years.

Now, the man who is often referred to as the “Eternal General,” has written a story of his own, in collaboration with author and noted journalist Jack Lessenberry.

The book, The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation’s Longest-Serving Attorney General, is “more a story of an interesting man than it is of a legal figure,” Lessenberry said. “This is not a book about Frank, it is Frank’s book.”

In 2010, Lessenberry, who also is the senior political analyst for Michigan Radio as well as the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University, visited Kelley to discuss the political issues of the day.

According to Lessenberry, the conversation turned to a draft of a manuscript Kelley wrote about his life experiences. He told Lessenberry he was looking for an editor to work with him on the book. Despite the fact that Kelley had unsuccessfully worked with other editors, Lessenberry accepted The book was in the works for years before Kelley and Lessenberry collaborated.
“For about three years I stayed up all night writing the draft. I hired a couple of people to work with me, but they never worked out. Jack and I hit it off so I asked him to help me finish my book. We were soul brothers,” Kelley said.

Once the project was in Lessenberry’s purview he was determined to finish it while Kelley was in good health.

“My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t get it done while Frank could enjoy it,” Lessenberry said.

Kelley didn’t disappoint. He celebrated his 90th birthday in December of last year and is expected to attend the book launch celebration September 17 at Wayne State. Wayne State University Press has scheduled the book for general release September 14.

For Lessenberry, the experience revealed another aspect of Kelley’s life.

“I learned more than I already knew about his non-legal life,” Lessenberry said.

Unaffected by the honors that have come his way, Kelley remains true to his calling.

“I wrote this book so every kid can go to a Michigan library and be inspired to enter public service. I know it’s not going to be a best-seller,” Kelley said.

Due to the length of his term, during which he was elected 10 times running as a Democratic candidate, Kelly was both the youngest AG in Michigan history (at 36 years old) and the oldest, at 74.

He did not rest on his laurels after that lengthy tenure. After retirement, he founded Kelley Cawthorne along with  After his departure from the Attorney General's office, Kelley founded the lobbying and law firm Kelley Cawthorne along with Dennis Cawthorne, a former Republican leader in the Michigan legislature.

While he was attorney general, Kelley redefined the office from what was often viewed as a short-term stepping-stone to the governor’s mansion to a force unto itself.

“He wanted to prevent other departments from creating fiefdoms. He was the attorney general for all the branches of government, “ said Lessenberry.

Throughout his career, Kelley earned a national reputation as someone who was not afraid to speak his mind. As an advocate for Michiganders, Kelley created the nation’s first consumer protection bureau and environmental protection division. 

Kelley’s legendary forthrightness hasn’t abated.

“Up until the time I became attorney general, the term was about two years. The attorney general was a threat to the governor so most were quickly rewarded with other positions,” Kelley said.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Kelley never aspired to the governor’s office.

“Republicans had the statehouse so they ignored me,” he said. “I never wanted to be governor. The attorney general could do more in those days than the governor. Today, the judiciary is more compromised because of the bitter factions in politics. The right and the left are so hostile to each other. Democracy is supposed to be a compromise.”

Kelley credits his father for providing the impetus to get an education and embrace a life as a public servant.

“My father didn’t have a formal education, but he wanted me to be a lawyer and serve the public.  He dropped dead a year after I received my license to practice law and to this day when I am faced with a challenge, I ask myself what would my father do,” Kelley said. “He was a minor success in politics, but a great influence in my life.”

Aside from dedicating his book to his wife Nancy and his former wife, Jo, and their three children, Kelley further reiterates his hope that his story will motivate future generations of young people to serve the public.

Said Kelley: “And I also want to dedicate it to the next generation of young Americans who hear the call of public service and are determined to do whatever they can to make this a better nation and a better world.”