Columnist Karen List: We all will miss Larry Kelley

  • Bob Greeney, of Amherst, front, waves flags along with others gathered Monday on the Amherst Town Common to remember Amherst blogger Larry Kelley. He was killed Friday in an accident on Route 9 in Belchertown.  JERREY ROBERTS

Monday, February 20, 2017

It’s probably safe to say that Amherst blogger Larry Kelley was not among most University of Massachusetts students’ Facebook friends – not when he was reporting weekly on weekend parties, selecting his “Party House of the Week” and showing up faithfully in court on Monday mornings to report the related charges.

But he was my Facebook friend—and a real friend to citizens of Amherst, including its students, through his dogged reporting on every aspect of local government.

Larry, whose local blog was called Only in the Republic of Amherst, once told me the story of which he was most proud was the one that reported on evidence of illegal basement housing and multiple violations of the city’s fire code at a Hobart Lane housing complex, where many students lived. Students were among his most important sources for that story, and if lives were saved by it, they were also its beneficiaries.

Like students and many others who live in Amherst, I read Larry’s blog regularly, and I first met him five years ago when he took an online course with me on his way to completing a certificate of journalism through the UMass Journalism Department.

I don’t think Larry would mind my saying that he didn’t earn an A in the class, but only because he was too busy reporting to do the class work.

But he was at the top of the class in every other way. I’ve never had an online student who contributed more to discussion based on his own experience, asked better questions or was more engaging. And I’ve had few students who taught me as much as Larry did about accessing local government information through state public records laws and about sorting the conflicts of interest bound to arise when reporting on one’s hometown, as he was.

Larry loved Amherst, and I’m certain that other people and other stories will speak to his Irish roots and his devotion to the town in which he grew up, his strong opinions on — well —everything, and his forays into the national media spotlight over issues like when and where the American flag should be flown.

But I want to share a side of Larry that may not have been so widely known, beginning with the fact that he liked UMass students.

I asked Larry more than once to speak to a class of 40 ethics or law students about accessing information, with the stipulation that he’d be open to any and all questions from students after his talk. He always came.

The first time he spoke to Journalism & Law, he wore a red sweater into a hot classroom overflowing with students who were not happy with his famous Friday and Saturday night forays into what they considered their territory.

He talked about public records, how public officials often don’t want to share them, but how students could use current access laws to get them. He explained that public records, including police records, were just that — public.

And then he took the questions about his sometimes less-than-flattering coverage of student life. He told them about his love and respect for his community and how he wanted its quality of life preserved always for all residents, even those who lived next to party houses.

My students always put him on the hot seat, but they were always polite, and I think they came away with a new understanding and respect for why he did what he did — even though they still didn’t like it.

“I had a blast, as I always do,” he wrote to me after one class, even though a random student followed him from the Student Union to the Mullins Center, arguing with and filming him all the way. Larry’s response? “I hope he uploads it somewhere so we can continue the discussion.”

It took real courage for him to show up for those sessions and face down those students, and I very much admired him for giving so generously of his time, both in the classroom and in interviews with journalism students who wanted to write about him.

He met the students where they lived despite receiving hundreds of hateful, anonymous comments about invading their privacy by reporting on their arrests. He also fielded their constant requests to take down the information.

He shared with me emails like this one from a student who’d been charged with possession of cocaine: “I am writing to urge you to please take my personal information off of your blog. As you can imagine, I’m dealing with a lot right now and my name in the public certainly doesn’t help. In this country one is supposed to be viewed as innocent until proven guilty. Something like your article can single handedly ruin my life.”

Yes, I’d say to Larry, someone is ruining this young person’s life, but it’s not you. His policy was to leave the information on his website, especially if the charge was drunk driving. Exceptions were made if students had been charged with lesser offenses for which they apologized or if they were found not guilty.

To be clear, Larry regularly published full information from local police logs not just about students, but about everyone, including his sources and friends when they showed up there.

In those instances, I could expect an email from Larry in which we talked about fairness, consistency and transparency—and how being all of those things was often difficult.

But Larry believed in reporting in the public interest — in the Amherst public’s interest.

Recently, some of his regular readers messaged him to ask about an accident in Amherst a few hours earlier, but he didn’t have the information yet because he was sitting in and reporting on a long zoning board meeting. And, in these days of dwindling media resources, he was the only reporter there.

“I don’t regret going to the mundane meeting,” he wrote in an email. “It started about 20 minutes late, so they were all just shooting the breeze, and I picked up two good story ideas. Meeting with the building commissioner at 3:30 today to follow up on them.”

I often wondered how many residents of Amherst knew that the only reason they were reading about an important local story was because Larry had devoted the time to being there, to asking the tough questions and to reporting it first on his blog.

He didn’t get paid for what he did, and he seldom got the credit he deserved, though he was listed last year in the Valley Advocate’s “100 Things We Like Best About the Valley.”

But Larry had the heart of a reporter and he did the work. He did it because he knew how important it is for people to understand their community and to have enough information to engage with it.

One of my fondest memories of Larry is seeing him on a sunny summer day sitting on the bench in front of Town Hall, tapping away on his keyboard, no doubt telling us all something we needed to know.

And he loved what he did. “Just another exciting day in paradise,” he wrote to me recently.

In our running conversation, I called him LK, and now, unbelievably, I need to say, “LK, I will miss you, as a reporter and as a friend — Facebook and otherwise.”

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.

Karen K. List is a professor in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.