Mr. Kelley’s Astonishing “Democratic Archive”
June 22, 2012
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — 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, while standing amid perhaps the greatest collection of Democratic presidential campaign items in the nation.
His family was Republican. 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, photographs and murals depict 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. Posters 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. Even more wicked is the one showing 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. So far, none of the other men in the collection—not even the Democrats Lincoln beat—have objected. Still, how ironic that this man comes 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, costing Dad a political patronage job.
Two years after serving as a Page, young David participated in a program called “Encampment for Citizenship,” where he met Eleanor Roosevelt. Those two experiences defined 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 and then went on to be the Corps’ first Volunteer Leader in Cameroon.
Kelley came home to crusade for civil rights, only to be beaten bloody by “bottle-wielding racists” in Mississippi, where he was trying to establish a multi-racial Encampment training program. He later earned a Doctorate from the University of Michigan, and eventually retired as Director of Community Education from the U of M’s Flint campus.
All the while 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 campaign back to Thomas Jefferson’s first. He also fell in love with a young woman named Mary Corsi, when both were fellow under-graduates at tiny Berea College in Kentucky. He proposed marriage to her in 1951. She said, “No.”
Instead, he married another woman who agreed to hitchhike with him to India. That marriage eventually fizzled. Then, in Ann Arbor in 1978, Doug ran into Mary again and—27 years later—again asked her to marry him. 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, with a faint smile.
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?” Not only does he have one, he 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, Georgia. Incidentally, I thought the most stunning thing in the Democratic Archive was an entire 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 don’t know.’”
One wonders if he really did.
Jack Lessenberry, the longtime head of journalism at Wayne State University, can be heard on his podcast on YouTube via the Zing Media Network. He also is a winner of a National Emmy Award for a 1994 Frontline documentary on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, has served as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is now a columnist for and a consultant to both that newspaper and Block Communications, Inc. He is also the co-author of “The People’s Lawyer,” a biography of Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving attorney general, and is working on a book on a pioneering newspaper family and race.