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Citizen journalist Larry Kelley dies in car crash, leaving legacy of stories in Amherst

  • LARRY KELLEY



@StephMurr_Jour
Saturday, February 18, 2017

AMHERST — Larry Kelley spent 10 years rushing to the scene of breaking news. Whether it was a car crash, a fire or a rowdy student gathering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst — he was always on it. 

But Kelley’s social media feeds and blog went silent Friday, when a fatal crash took the life of a man who had tirelessly posted town news and commentary day in and day out for a decade. 

Kelley, 62, was killed in a two-vehicle crash on Route 9 in Belchertown around 2:45 p.m. on Friday near 299 Federal St. A vehicle driven by an 18-year-old Belchertown man traveling westbound collided with Kelley’s vehicle, said Northwestern district attorney’s office spokeswoman Mary Carey.

The 18-year-old and two passengers in his vehicle suffered non-life threatening injuries. They were transported to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Carey said.

Kelley, a fifth-generation Amherst resident, leaves behind two daughters, Jada, 10, and Kira, 15.

Kelley was an Amherst institution. The University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate and father of two ran a karate school in South Amherst for 28 years. He wrote a column for the Amherst Bulletin for 14 years. He once beat Tae Bo creator Billy Blanks in a martial arts fight with his signature kick.

Only in the Republic

But he was best known for his work as a self-proclaimed citizen journalist on his blog, Only in the Republic of Amherst.

“Amherst has lost an outsize personality, a dogged reporter, a committed citizen, a devoted father to his girls and a thoroughly decent human being,” said University of Massachusetts journalism professor Karen List. 

Kelley covered his self-assigned Amherst beat full-time for almost a decade. He started his blog on March 17, 2007. He had a habit of starting new projects and setting goals on St. Patrick’s Day, he told a Gazette reporter in October 2015. Kelley was hesitant at first because he worried he would not have enough material to publish.

Armed with a journalism certificate from UMass Amherst and an “unabashed” love for the town, Kelley launched Only in the Republic of Amherst. As it turned out, he had plenty of material to cover.

Kelley kept watch — and shared his own opinions — about town matters like the summer 2016 drought, the departure of Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk, the Hampshire College American flag controversy and the current push to restructure Amherst town government.

Kelley will be so missed, said W.D. Cowls President Cinda Jones, that she is calling for a new citizen journalist to fill his place.

“In Amherst, where truth and reality are optional, Larry Kelley brought accountability, a reality check. We can’t let Larry’s legacy die with him,” Jones said in an email to the Gazette on Saturday. “Someone needs to step up and be that citizen watchdog.”

Police radio

Kelley was everywhere the news was. He flew his drone, which he called “Birdie,” to take sweeping landscape photos of the town, and document breaking stories like house fires or unruly events at UMass Amherst. He went down to Amherst Police Department and sifted through police reports. He answered nearly every question readers posed on his Facebook page.

Kelley monitored his police scanner and posted the highlights on Twitter and Facebook. He covered town meetings with voracity, attended Eastern Hampshire District Court on Monday mornings and shared his findings through articles, posts, tweets and live videos. He made his own press pass for court visits. He wasn’t afraid to be snarky.

Kelley is survived by his younger sister, Peggy Garcia of Virginia, and two older brothers; Marty Kelley of New York and Tom Kelley of Hadley.

“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Garcia, 60, said by telephone Saturday. Funeral arrangements have not been finalized, she said, but will likely take place at the end of the week.

Kelley, with his trademark thick gray mustache and glasses, would venture out on the weekends to popular party spots in Amherst. He paid midnight visits to Phillips Street where college parties always seemed to crop up. He annually covered St. Patrick’s Day event Blarney Blowout, which garnered national media attention in 2014. He joked about how a flying beer can almost struck him in the head that year.

‘Hometown attitude’

Former Amherst Bulletin editor and Gazette reporter Nick Grabbe said he was shocked when he heard the news of Kelley’s death.

“One of the big questions is ‘Who is going to fill the gap?’” Grabbe said.

“Larry was a real fixture on the Amherst scene and he was tireless in going to meetings and reporting about what was going on. He had a deep love for Amherst, even though he felt like an outsider. I think that he had a hometown attitude that really came through on his blog,” Grabbe said. “I met him 35 years ago when he was opening up a karate studio … He actually demonstrated his skill by doing a karate kick that landed only inches from my face to see if I would flinch.”

Kirik Jenness, Kelley’s longtime business partner, said he will remember Kelley as the most determined person he ever met. Kelley and Jenness owned a mixed martial arts studio in South Amherst together called Amherst Athletic Club. The gym first opened as Karate Health Fitness Center around 1981. They added Amherst Athletic Club in the late 1980s and New England Submission Fighting in 1993. Kelley retired several years ago, and Jenness still owns the business.

Jenness met Kelley in 1976 when he was a senior at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School. Kelley, the number one karate fighter in New England at the time, was his idol.

“I really, really looked up to him,” Jenness said. “He defied the conventions of the time … There was Bruce Lee and then there was Larry. It was awesome.”

Jenness he hopes people will remember Kelley as not just a fighter, but as a lover.

“The love he had for his daughters, it was extraordinary,” Jenness said. “His daughters were definitely the cornerstone of his life.”

List, Kelley’s journalism professor at UMass, echoed that sentiment.

“He was devoted to his daughters. He took a summer online course with me when one of them was a baby, and when it was too hot to work on the computer in his house, he worked in his air-conditioned car on [in the driveway] with the baby sleeping in her car seat,” List said.

Part of history

Kelley ruffled feathers when he covered UMass student parties and subsequent arrests, but he really did like the students, List said.

“He was so generous with his time, speaking to journalism classes about access to public documents, how to develop local sources and other topics important to them,” List said. “Larry cared more about Amherst, its history and its future than anyone else I know. He was proud of the part he played in making Amherst the town it is — and I’m proud to have worked with and known him.

One of Kelley’s treasured Amherst stories dates back to the 19th century, he previously told the Gazette. Kelley’s great-great-grandfather, Tom Kelley, was one of Emily Dickinson’s Irish servants in the mid-1800s. Tom Kelley referred to the poet as “Miss Emily,” according to a letter penned by Dickinson, so that’s what Larry Kelley called her on his blog.

After Tom Kelley lost an arm to amputation after a roofing accident, he got the nickname “One-Armed Tom.” That disability did not stop him from serving the famous poet. Tom Kelley was the lead pallbearer at Dickinson’s funeral when she died in 1886, Kelley said. At Dickinson’s request, Tom Kelley and a team of Irish servants carried her casket through the fields to West Cemetery on Triangle Street.

“You can almost see my house from here,” Kelley said that afternoon two years ago as he sipped a cup of coffee outside the Black Sheep. Behind the foliage, the Emily Dickinson Museum — once home to Dickinson and “One-Armed Tom” — could almost be seen, too.

After a lifetime of telling Amherst stories, Kelley has become one himself.

Stephanie Murray can be reached at stephaniemur@umass.edu