Tuesday, March 7, 2017
On Larry Kelley
I must say that I was impressed by the outpouring of kind words for Amherst's premiere blogger Larry Kelley, who died in a car accident almost three weeks ago. Kelley is the second Valley blogger to die unexpectedly in recent months, Holyoke provocateur Pronoblem Francis Baalberith (James Bickford) was killed in September, also in a traffic accident.
I've been walking everywhere I can lately.
It was nice to hear all the praise Larry received in death, because he was hardly universally praised when he was alive. Kelley had his critics for a number of reasons, in part because he was a fifth generation Amherst resident, a pedigree that he often referred to in debates. Doing so rankled some people in a town with a high percentage of non-native residents. Being such a deep-rooted townie gave his opinions a standing that some college professor who had only blown into town a few years ago to grab a payday at UMass simply did not have. As the old farmers always say in public debates involving UMass, which only arrived in Amherst in 1862, "We were here first." Among his native credentials was the fact that one of his forbears was the head pallbearer for the sainted Emily Dickinson. Kelley himself was present when President John F. Kennedy came to Amherst in October of 1963, the last time the President visited his home state before his assassination.
Most of the flack that came Larry's way was because of political differences. Although Kelley was pro-choice, pro-gay rights and only really leaned rightward on fiscal matters, the fact that he deviated at all from left-wing orthodoxy meant he was regularly denounced by critics as being too conservative to be such a prominent figure in a liberal enclave like Amherst. Despite being a highly literate community of political activists, no left of center blogger ever emerged to challenge Kelley. A professional athlete in his youth, Kelly was highly competitive, and told me once he would have relished another serious blogger on the scene, but the local lefties chose only to complain about what he was doing without ever attempting to create a more liberal blog of their own.
Of course there was Larry's flag obsession. He was always urging the town of Amherst to fly flags for virtually every holiday and special event, to the point where some critics accused him of having a flag fetish. Such enthusiastic patriotism didn't always go over well among Amherst liberals, who would balk at his various flag waving schemes, which in turn would result in national news stories that presented Amherst before the whole country as that terrible little town that doesn't like to fly the stars and stripes. Grown weary of all the bad publicity, the town finally surrendered to Kelley in 2015 and adopted his schedule of flag waving. He told me he considered it his greatest political victory. It will be interesting to see whether his flag waving schedule is adhered to now that Larry is no longer around to enforce it.
No doubt there are those who are secretly pleased to see the end of Larry's blog. Politicians with something to hide, incompetent school administrators, boozy college kids, obnoxious social justice warriors and rich snobs who dress like hippies will not miss the spotlight his citizen journalism cast on them. But lovers of good government, advocates for public accountability and transparency or just plain people who like pretty pictures of Amherst taken from a drone, will feel his loss acutely.
Kelley's role in covering Amherst became increasingly important as other, more traditional news sources, such as the Amherst Bulletin, had less resources and space to devote to local news due to the national decline in newspaper advertising. The Amherst Bulletin, which no longer even has an office in Amherst (reporters now drive over from the Hampshire Gazette office in Northampton) simply can't cover all the board meetings, educational activities, political and social events that Larry did. His death has resulted in an information black-out that will be hard to rectify. As UMass journalism Professor Karen List put it, "The truth is, at a time when we all need to be fully engaged with our local government and our community, we all will miss Larry. Some of us just don’t know it yet."
Although there were advertisements on Larry's blog, I don't think he came anywhere near making a living off it. This was despite being a very popular blog. His server stats, which he always made public, show he got over 122,000 hits in the 30 days before his death. By comparison, the blog you are reading right now got just 9,200 hits in the same time period. But Kelley didn't do his blog for the money and I'm certain he would have continued blogging even if it never made a cent. Kelley was part of that unique tribe of people who do things just because they ought to be done and no one else is doing it. It is always terrible when a member of that tribe is lost.
We ain't many.
As they carried Kelley's casket into St. Brigid's, the ornate Catholic Church the Amherst Irish built in the heart of town, the bells in the church tower were loudly pealing. No doubt those bells could be heard in the cemetery just across the way, where his ancestor Tom Kelley once helped lower Miss Emily into her grave. Per order of the town, every single public flag pole in Amherst had Old Glory flapping in the winter wind.
Larry, ya shoulda seen it.