A tremendous asset with a wealth of knowledge

July 12, 2010
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Ruth Kelly is all Grand Rapids.

Kelly, who looks younger than her 57 years, was born and raised here. She earned an undergraduate degree in political and social science from Aquinas College and a master’s in educational technology from Grand Valley State University. She worked as an organizer in the Eastown, South East End and Baxter districts, where neighborhood and business groups recognized her outstanding work by naming her the first recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Leadership Scholarship.

Kelly also is the newest Grand Rapids city commissioner, and she underwent an initiation process that could be described as a baptism by fire. As soon as Kelly was appointed to the 2nd Ward seat, vacant due to David LeGrand’s decision to run for state office, she found herself in the most publicized budget deliberation in recent memory.

The commission began budget discussions last September and emerged late last month with a $110 million general fund that has a projected surplus of $33,000 for the fiscal year. In between, commissioners eliminated $33 million from the budget and 46 jobs from the work force, on top of the 125 positions erased in January.

As a rookie, Kelly was there for all of it — first as a more-than-interested observer, then as a voting commissioner.

“It was very challenging. It is always heart wrenching when people lose their jobs,” said Kelly. “It’s also, I think, a real opportunity for transformation. So that’s the silver lining. I always think it’s a good thing to review priorities, and that is what has to happen and has been happening.

“I’m very grateful as well that city residents seemed to understand the predicament that we were in — that there is just so much that we can do. We are restricted in many areas in terms of negotiations with employee groups, and with revenue sharing from the state, and, of course, the loss of both property and income taxes in this economic downturn.

“So I appreciate that the residents understood that and stepped up to the plate in a very difficult time for them and passed the income tax to give us time. I’m also appreciative of the citizen involvement because that’s key to this transformation. We need to be paying attention to the groups that we serve,” she said.

Throughout the months of discussions, Kelly tried to remain fixed on the positive aspects of an exhaustive and stressful process. She saw the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, a citizen’s group, not only create a fundraiser to keep city pools open this summer, but also roll up its collective sleeves to provide maintenance for the parks.

“I think that we have an amazingly nimble staff at City Hall. A lot of young people are coming in and are energetic and ready for change. They want to live in a community that is beautiful, energy efficient and dynamic, and I’m sensing a real desire to jump in and make those changes. At the same time, I don’t minimize the stress that the staff is going through because we need to kind of turn this upside down and look at everything. People are going to be protective of the way things were, that’s only natural.

“But I see a huge opportunity here in terms of consolidation and rethinking how departments work, and really focusing on how we can govern by networking — with the profit, the nonprofit and the government working together. I think we have an unusual community in that way because we have a strong work ethic, we are fiscally conservative overall so we’re careful, and we have a lot of citizen participation in watching the budget and in volunteering,” she said.

The commission chose Kelly to fill LeGrand’s seat in April. In November 2007, she had thrown her hat into the ring for the same seat, but lost to LeGrand. The loss obviously didn’t dim her faith in the process.

“I’ve always felt a real sense of pride for having jumped in and for having worked very hard,” she said of her candidacy. “I walked six days a week, and we didn’t get much rain that summer so I didn’t have any excuses to not do that. But I had an enormous outpouring of support, and that was, in part, why I decided I really needed to apply for this position again.”

In trying to determine what has been the biggest break in her career, Kelly went straight to the starting point. “I’d say getting a good education is the underpinning of everything. I was able to get, in the terms of a career, a couple of breaks. I got an organizer job at Eastown, and that was really the impetus for so much of my community work. … And then getting into a Montessori job at Grand Rapids Public Schools,” she said. “But, again, it’s having a good education that matters so much.”

Rosalynn Bliss is Kelly’s fellow commissioner in the 2nd Ward. Bliss said she has known Kelly for several years and admired her sense of community and belief in civic engagement. She said Kelly has a proven track record of working with neighbors to settle problems and to improve the areas in which they live. During the interview process to replace LeGrand, Bliss said she also was impressed with Kelly’s grasp of the serious issues the city was facing and her thoughts on how those matters could be resolved.

“And now as a colleague, I find her great to work with. She is collaborative, thoughtful, studies the issues, cares about the people we represent and is hard working. We have a great working relationship, which is valuable as city commissioners who jointly represent the same area of the city. I think she is a tremendous asset to the City Commission and brings a wealth of knowledge and a great perspective to the board,” said Bliss.

Third Ward Commissioner Elias Lumpkins echoed Bliss’ comment about Kelly being a hard worker. He said she was ready to join in on the budget tussle on her first day. “Her love for and knowledge of the city enabled Ruth to hit the ground running and be an asset in the budget process. Ruth’s intellect and retired status has enabled her to devote even more time to being a 2nd Ward commissioner,” said Lumpkins.

Kelly retired from the Grand Rapids Public School system only a few years ago. She was a certified Montessori instructor and also taught English and social studies at the middle-school level. Riverside Middle was the last school where she taught. “I miss the kids and I’ve actually gone back to see them. That was ideal. I could go back to the school and the teachers and students that I knew — kind of like being a grandparent,” she said with a laugh. “You can do it when you want to and then you can say ‘no.’”

Ruth and husband Carl have been married for 27 years. They’re empty nesters residing in the 2nd Ward right now, but they once had eight children in what Ruth called a blended family. Daughter Cassie is the only one currently living in the city; she is in her second term on the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. Youngest daughter Cailin is the farthest from home; she’s in Moldova as part of the Peace Corps effort there. “It’s been a year now. She left in June last year. It’s a 27-month assignment,” Kelly said.

Carl is a retired educator who remains active with the Dyer-Ives Foundation and the Monroe North Tax-Increment Financing Authority. He was a community organizer, too, directing a southeast side neighborhood group, and he has been involved with the West Michigan Center of Arts and Technology. Carl, who grew up in Cassopolis and graduated from DePaul University, worked at Herman Miller for 17 years and taught English literature to high schoolers. The two met when both were working as community organizers.

Ruth was wrapping up her work on an ad hoc committee for the Grand Rapids Public Schools when the Business Journal spoke with her. She stays involved with a few groups, such as the Healthy Homes Coalition, but not nearly the number she served before joining the commission. “I’ve really been focused on the city because it’s very time consuming. I’m very happy to be retired and able to devote the time to it, to be thorough and to get back to people as quickly as possible,” she said.

Prior to taking the oath of office, Kelly served on the Dyer-Ives Foundation Board, the Community Development Citizens Committee and the city’s Cable Television Advisory Board. Her reputation for involvement as a citizen and an organizer goes unchallenged. Where did she get that sense for community and then politics?

As one might guess, it came from John and Kathryn Straayer, her late parents.

“When I grew up, we had a routine at the dinner table. We would read the Bible, pray and watch the news. It was always ‘Goodnight, Chet. Goodnight, David. Goodnight from Texaco,’ you know? That was just part of my family. And my parents had me volunteer tutoring when I was in high school and marching during the Civil Rights movement. Then I did the same with my children.”

In her spare time, Kelly likes to read and travel. “I’m willing to go anywhere, but I’ve been to Egypt three times,” she said, adding that Rio de Janeiro and Thailand were other favorite spots. “I’ve been really fortunate. My trips to Egypt were basically sleeping-on-the-ground kind of excursions — it wasn’t five-star hotels. But I prefer a trip where you meet with the people who live there.”

As for her future, Kelly sees herself meeting soon with more people in the community because her term doesn’t expire until the end of next year, but because she thinks the city has to transform the way it delivers its services to residents.

“I think the immediate future is going to be about reading, studying and meeting with people in the community to work for transformation that satisfies, if we can, all of our constituents, the taxpayers. Transformation is difficult,” she said, and then compared the process to childbirth. “Right before you’re about to give birth is the most painful and intense time. But it’s also very exciting.”

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