For about 9,000 mornings, Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly has driven to his job in Buffalo. On Thursday, he will be doing so for the last time. A 37-year employee in the Wright County Attorney’s Office – the last 22 as elected by county residents – Kelly has been a fixture around the Wright County Government Center and, in recent months, the new Justice Center.
Known as a man who proudly brought his No. 2 pencil to meetings – not necessarily a laptop, tablet or phone – Kelly announced Sept. 30 that he would be stepping down as Wright County Attorney to enjoy a much-deserved retirement. As the days have ticked down, Kelly reflected on his career, the team approach he brought to his office and the strong relationship he built working hand-in-hand with law enforcement.
“When I was putting together my retirement letter and was thinking about all the things I’ve been involved with in my 37 years, it really has been something I’ve been proud of,” Kelly said. “It’s been a remarkable career. I’ve enjoyed working with law enforcement all these years. I’ve worked with five sheriffs in my time with Wright County and many more police chiefs in Buffalo, Annandale and Howard Lake. The working relationship we’ve had has been amazing and something I’ll never forget.”
In 1990, Kelly was named Chief of the Criminal Division by then-County Attorney Wyman Nelson. One of his first acts was to meet with law enforcement leaders to create a cooperative atmosphere between the departments, because he believes good police work is the foundation of every prosecution. In some counties, there are “turf battles” between law enforcement and the county attorney’s office, but that has never been the case in Wright County on Kelly’s watch, despite turnover on the law enforcement side and new personalities taking over with their own ideas.
When Kelly looks at Wright County now, it’s a far cry from his first recollection of what would become his home area.
In March 1984, Kelly was offered $19,000 a year to come to Wright County to be an assistant prosecuting attorney – an opportunity he jumped at, saying, “It was the right opportunity with the right county for the right reasons.” When he first pulled into Buffalo at the intersection of Hwy. 55 and Hwy. 25, there was a stop light – the only one in town at that time.
When he began with Wright County, there were about 60,000 residents. Now that figure is 140,000. When he was hired in 1984, he was one of eight employees. Kelly’s office has 29 employees – 24 of whom he hired – and they have more than 500 years of combined work experience. Not only did Kelly hire most of them, he hired people that, like himself, didn’t view Wright County as a stepping-stone job and were in it for the long haul.
“I think I’ve been a pretty good judge of people over the years,” Kelly said. “I’ve always said that I hire the best people possible, stay the hell out of their way and let them do their job. That way, they take ownership. I’m really proud of that – how long people have decided to stay with the Wright County Attorney’s Office.”
Among those is Office Manager Cindy Hohl. She has worked alongside Kelly since Day 1 and he credits her as being the glue that has held the office together over the decades. He joked that they have become a couple in their own right.
“I’ve only had two wives in my life – my real one Holly of 40 years and my work wife Cindy of 37 years,” Kelly said. “I found out a long time ago you have to keep them both happy. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy told the Scarecrow, ‘I think I’m going to miss you the most of all.’ That’s how I feel about Cindy. She held this office together and has been an awesome business and office manager.”
When he became County Attorney in 1999, one of Kelly’s first decisions was to make Brian Asleson his chief deputy. Asleson remains in that position as Kelly’s right-hand man. He also made the decision to promote Brian Lutes to the head of the Criminal Division and, based on Kelly’s glowing recommendation to the County Board of Commissioners, Lutes will serve out the final two years of Kelly’s term.
As Kelly reflected on his time in Wright County, his list of accomplishments and commitment to his office was enumerated in his Sept. 30 retirement letter, which can be seen here: https://www.co.wright.mn.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1979.
Among his greatest achievements has been his commitment to young people in Wright County and trying to help steer them down the right path. He has spoken with more than 16,000 high school students over the last 25 years and has tried to teach life lessons and serve as a mentor to young people with their lives still ahead of them.
Part of Kelly’s personality has been his genuine compassion for the victims of crimes and their families. Kelly’s staff has never looked at their jobs in terms of conviction rates or percentages. He has preached to his attorneys to do the best they can to represent the citizens of Wright County and, more importantly, the victims and their families to the best of their ability.
“I’ve told my attorneys that this isn’t a sporting event with a win-loss record,” Kelly said. “If you get a verdict you disagree with, you have to look yourself in the mirror and be fine with that. There isn’t always going to be justice for the victims and their families. When you’re prosecuting a homicide case, the victim isn’t coming back, so there isn’t always justice that you can get for them. You hope for the best outcome and perhaps closure, but justice doesn’t come as easily. That’s the reality of it.”
Kelly had considered not running for re-election in 2018, but his primary motivation was to see the completion of the Justice Center, which was long overdue given the cramped, technology-challenged courtrooms in the Government Center. He wanted to make sure the new facility would meet the needs of the county for the future, but had no idea how deep into the process he would get.
“One of the reasons I ran again was that I wanted to see the Justice Center project through,” Kelly said. “I worked with the architects all the way back in 2017. My job was to tell the architects what the person in my position was going to need 20, 30, 40 years from now. I’d never been asked anything like that. It was a really interesting project. We could have looked at what we needed right now and outgrow it in 10 years. We have some vacant offices that were built into the project because, as we continue to grow and the demands on our office continue to grow, those offices will fill up and meet the needs of our county long after I’m gone.”
Kelly had never firmly decided on a date that he would retire because he is still full of passion and drive and jumps headlong into the next challenge that presents itself. However, over the last year, the thought kept creeping into his mind that he wanted to spend more time with his wife Holly and their children Matt and Megan while he still has the energy and ambition to do whatever he chooses to.
The thoughts of retirement hit home a little harder when our world was effectively shut down by COVID-19 and Kelly began thinking more in terms of there being no better time than the present to hang up his shingle and ride off into retirement.
“I just didn’t want to be one of those people who work until you’re 70 and then you die at 71,” Kelly said. “It really started coming to the front of my brain about six months ago that this was a decision I should make. I’m not sure there was one moment where I said, ‘that’s it.’ It was a process and I finally got to the point where I accepted what my mind was telling me and decided the time was now, not two years from now at the end of my term.”
A student of military history, Kelly is fond of the quote of Gen. Douglas MacArthur that “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” That is how he is viewing his retirement. With COVID-related isolation preventing gatherings like the “Standing Room Only” bash that would have been expected for his retirement, Kelly said he’ll miss that part of the ritual of saying goodbye to a respected friend and colleague – which so many over the years have considered Kelly.
“This has been difficult for me, because I’ve always enjoyed getting out in the communities of Wright County and meeting up with people,” Kelly said. “I’ve been to other retirement parties and there was something to be said about getting together for cake and coffee, reminiscing about your time together and saying ‘thank you’ to those who have been part of your life for so many years. With COVID, there are no plans for any type of celebration or gathering. That’s our reality. When I leave here, I truly will just fade away.”
Kelly doesn’t have immediate plans for the next chapter in his life. He joked, “People say, ‘Are you going to travel?’ I say, ‘Yeah. We might make it up to St. Michael or Otsego. We haven’t really thought it out. We’re just going to do it. There isn’t a roadmap to how you retire. It’s going to be new to me and Holly and we’ll figure it out as we go about it.”
Kelly has witnessed many of the changes that have transformed Wright County from a collection of small towns and farming communities into one of the fastest growing counties in the state. With that growth comes all the demands for service that accompany it. If he wasn’t convinced that his office was ready for a new leader at the top, but the same kindred spirit within the office he has fostered over the decades, he might not have decided to retire.
But, he knows his office is in good hands and that, while it will be different without him, it likely won’t miss a beat.
“I’ve been blessed to have an amazing staff in this office,” Kelly said. “I’d like to think that I’m a good judge of character and saw something in each of them when I hired them. But, they have constantly showed me that I made the right decision – even years after I hired them. Sometimes people worry about how work will get done at their place of business when they’re gone. I don’t have to worry about that here…and neither do the residents of Wright County. They’re my legacy. My name was at the top of the letterhead, but there are lot of tremendous people here that have made our office what it is and what it will continue to be. That’s what I’m most proud of.”