A reporter once asked Frank C. Kelly what motivated him to keep coming back as the mayor of Collingdale, a tiny, tidy borough of about 9,000 people in eastern Delaware County.

"I've been here all my life," Mr. Kelly replied at that time, 42 years into a career as Pennsylvania's longest-serving municipal executive. "I know everybody in town. I like helping people."

Collingdale was his life, and his life's work was to serve it and its people. On Thursday, Nov. 22, after nearly five decades at the helm of his hometown, Mr. Kelly died at 84 from complications related to ongoing cardiac issues. He died at home after sharing  Thanksgiving dinner with his family.

The lifelong Republican was a month away from ending the first year of his 12th consecutive four-year term as mayor.

"He was always straight to the point with everyone — sometimes you liked it, sometimes you didn't," said John Hewlings, Collingdale's borough manager and a close friend of Mr. Kelly's. "But he always had what he thought was the best of the borough in his mind. And I think that was where he got his support.

"Everyone thought his whole life was dedicated to Collingdale," Hewlings added.

Longtime friends say Mr. Kelly's health had declined since January, when he lost Janet, his wife of 61 years.

But even as he battled heart issues and diabetes, Mr. Kelly was a man about town, Hewlings said. The mayor made regular trips to borough hall, the former location of the high school where he met his wife, and a building he fought to save from demolition.

"There wasn't an event that took place that he wasn't somehow involved in organizing. It was just the way he was," Hewlings said. "Everything centered around him."

Frank Kelly once said he continued to serve as Collingdale’s mayor because of his love of helping people. Here, the mayor greeted children from the Elf Child Care Center on their morning walk on an early spring day in 2012.
ED HILLE / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Frank Kelly once said he continued to serve as Collingdale’s mayor because of his love of helping people. Here, the mayor greeted children from the Elf Child Care Center on their morning walk on an early spring day in 2012.

The son of a shipyard worker, Mr. Kelly spent his life in Collingdale aside from two years with the Army at Fort Gordon, Ga. After high school, Mr. Kelly took a job as a lineman for Philadelphia Electric Co. He put in 41 years at Peco, working his way up from climbing poles to overseeing tree-trimming work as a supervisor.

Later, Mr. Kelly left to take a job at the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, a position he stepped away from in 2011 after heart surgery.

His political career had a humble start, with an appointment to the Darby Creek Joint Sewer Authority. Mr. Kelly later won a seat on the borough council, and clinched his first mayoral victory in 1970.

That was around the time he met Kathleen Munro through a knock on her door as Collingdale's unofficial welcoming committee. She lamented Mr. Kelly's passing as "a tough loss for Collingdale and the end of an era."

"He went to every funeral, he knew everybody's name, he went to everyone's home," said Munro, president of the borough council. "He was just hands-on, and that's why we trusted him to be mayor all these years."

In 2012, the state legislature officially recognized his longevity as mayor, cementing his name in the annals of Pennsylvania history. It was an achievement won through 12 successful campaigns. But Mr. Kelly hadn't had serious competition for his seat since the early 1990s, when he elbowed past a challenger by a few hundred votes.

"He was a natural leader, because he believed in Collingdale," said Bob Adams, who served 38 years on the borough's police department, the last 10 of those as chief. "And if you needed something, he was there. He made it his mission to help."

Mr. Kelly was "like a second father" to Adams, the man who first hired him as a part-time officer and was there at every step of his career afterward. When a drunk driver hit Adams during a late-night shift, Mr. Kelly was at his hospital bedside, waiting for him to open his eyes.

"He went above and beyond for the people in this town," Adams said. "There's no doubt about it, he was 'Mr. Collingdale.'"

That reputation stretched beyond the few square miles Collingdale occupies.

Andy Reilly, who stepped down this week after nine years as the head of the Delaware County Republican Party, said Mr. Kelly was "the quintessential small-town mayor."

"I don't know that he had a single enemy, and regardless of people's party affiliations or allegiance, he'll be missed greatly," Reilly said. "He was a mayor that really cared deeply about his town and the lives of the people in the town."

His sentiments were echoed by John McBlain, who frequently worked with Mr. Kelly as the head of the Delaware County Council.

"Frank Kelly was omnipresent. He was Collingdale," McBlain said. "I would hate to be the person to follow him— It'd be like following Sinatra on a bill."

Mr. Kelly is survived by children Jeannette Morris, Frank Kelly, Colleen Ruggear, Kathleen Ruggear, Patrick Kelly, and Kristine Olley; 17 grandchildren; and 15 great-grandchildren. A son, Brian, died earlier.

A viewing will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, and 9 to 10 a.m. Friday, Nov. 30, at St. Joseph's Church, 500 Woodlawn Ave., Collingdale, followed by a Funeral Mass at 10. Burial will be in SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery, Marple Township.