One of Boone County’s most well-known public officials began telling family, friends and colleagues in February that he would retire from his position as associate circuit court judge at the end of 2006.
Chris Kelly told them he had been in public life long enough, and there are other things he wants to do.
Oddly enough, the sole public notice about his retirement is for a speech about his career that Kelly will deliver Friday to local Democrats. Kelly is fine with the lack of attention.
“It would be presumptuous for me to announce I am going to retire,” Kelly said.
His career includes service as Boone County clerk, state legislator, chairman of the state Labor and Industrial Relations Commission and host of “The Chris Kelly Show” on KFRU/1400 AM.
While retirement will give Kelly more time to enjoy his passion for whitewater canoeing, the outspoken Democrat is considering another radio show dedicated to public policy discussions. Kelly said he’s had “chats” about returning to radio but declined to comment on specific possibilities.
If he returns to the airwaves, Kelly said, he wants to host a show that reflects his previous efforts to foster intelligent conversation about public policy.
“People said that I would listen to them and didn’t take myself too seriously but took the issues seriously,” Kelly said.
A “vast number” of talk-show hosts “are concerned with getting the audience to adopt their point of view,” Kelly said. “I want to encourage the people who listen to share ideas.”
Since he was elected county clerk in 1978, Kelly has served six terms in the Missouri House of Representatives and a stint on the state Labor and Industrial Relations Commission. He was appointed to the bench in the spring of 2000 by Gov. Mel Carnahan.
He was elected to a full term as associate circuit court judge in 2000 and will finish out the six-year term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2006.
Kelly is scheduled to share his reflections as a retiring judge during the weekly meeting of the Muleskinners, a club for local Democrats, at noon Friday in Stamper Commons on the Stephens College campus.
“There are lots of memorable individual instances, but the process of government is more important than the product,” Kelly said.
On the bench, he said, conducting the process in a fair and open manner is more important than mistakes and successes. Ensuring fairness for each individual can be a challenge, he said, especially on some days in which he hears about 100 cases.
Kelly said he’s mindful that each case he handles is not just a folder filled with papers, but people’s lives.
“It is my job to see that everyone gets a fair shake,” he said as he pointed to a table stacked with legal folders.
“Sometimes I look back and see it was the wrong call,” Kelly said.
He said he doesn’t let his mistakes worry him because the strength of the legal system is that errors can be overturned on appeal.
Kelly said his successor should be patient, fair and compassionate and follow the law even when he or she doesn’t like it. “It is frequent that I don’t like the law, but it is not my job to judge the law but to apply it,” Kelly said.
One potential Democratic candidate for Kelly’s seat on the bench is local attorney Leslie Schneider, who served as a municipal judge from 1987 to 1996. Schneider said her legal background makes her a strong candidate.
Boone County Republican Central Committee Terry Spickert said he knows of three potential candidates but was not at liberty to say who they are.
Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren, who was Kelly’s chief deputy when he held the same office, said he was an exception during a time when men often didn’t give advice or freedom to their female employees. When she was Kelly’s chief deputy, Noren said, “he gave me responsibility and the tools to become what I am today.”
Noren said she listened to Kelly’s radio show and would listen again if he went back on the air.
She said that beneath a humor that ranges from blistering to self-deprecating, Kelly has the ability to make people think. “He will say things he doesn’t believe in just to make you think,” she said.
“He had an idea a minute, which keeps you young just batting some of them away and thinking about the rest,” said Roger Wilson, the Missouri Democratic Party Chairman and former state senator who served as Missouri governor after Carnahan’s death.
Wilson, who was budget chairman in the Senate at the same time Kelly held the post in the House, said Kelly’s strong views didn’t prevent him from working effectively with fellow legislators and winning the respect of opponents.
Wilson said Kelly was one of the county’s most popular representatives because he worked hard and understood thatthe most important part of his job was to serve constituents.
“He didn’t give it (service) to just constituents but anyone he came into contact with, especially if they didn’t have a voice,” Wilson said.
Republican Rep. Bob Johnson of Jackson County said Kelly was a “little left of center,” adding that it didn’t prevent the two from working together on higher education legislation.
Johnson said that if Kelly were given another radio show, he would expect him to carry a sarcastic tone. Still, he’d be willing to show up as a guest.
“He most definitely let you speak,” Johnson said. “He wouldn’t cut you off.”
Kelly and his wife, Nanette Laughrey, decided to move from Washington, D.C., to Columbia 33 years ago after getting stuck in town because of a snowstorm. The couple didn’t know anyone in Columbia when they arrived but recognized the city as a good place to raise children and attend law school. Both eventually graduated from the MU School of Law.
Laughrey has no plans to step down from her seat as a U.S. district judge, Kelly said.
“She isn’t going to retire. Someone needs to support me.”
A portion of this report first aired Wednesday during the “ABC 17 News at 10.”