Mayor of Collingdale honored for 42 years of service

Collingdale Mayor Frank Kelly greets children from the Elf Child Care Center on their morning walk. "I know everybody in town, I like helping people," he says. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Collingdale Mayor Frank Kelly greets children from the Elf Child Care Center on their morning walk. "I know everybody in town, I like helping people," he says. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 22, 2012

Frank Kelly is a stay-put sort of guy.

He worked for the electric company for 41 years. He's been married to the same woman (Janet) for 56 years. For a pet, he's always favored an Irish setter. (He's had eight.)

And for the last 42 years, Kelly has been the Republican mayor of Collingdale Borough. He was recognized recently by the legislature as the longest-serving municipal executive in Pennsylvania.

"I've been here all my life, I know everybody in town, I like helping people." That was his simple explanation for his 11 campaigns for office since Richard Nixon was in the White House, a war raged in Vietnam, and the Beatles were breaking up.

With his thick, white hair, Kelly, at 77, looks as though he could be Gov. Corbett's older brother. He's a talker with big, fleshy hands, which he sticks out the window to greet the citizenry as he cruises around the borough in his 2009 Pontiac Vibe.

"The best mayor around; you ain't going to find nothing like him," said resident Frank McGlinchey, a school crossing guard and Boeing retiree, ducking his head into the car as Kelly introduces him to a reporter.

Collingdale (population 8,800) is "a workingman's town," as Kelly calls it, bisected by the trolley line that goes to 69th Street, where the El rattles in from Philadelphia. The borough covers not quite nine-tenths of a square mile, a third of it cemetery land.

It's one of those eastern Delaware County boroughs where residents turned their backs on the big city for the contentment of a brick twin with a tidy yard, safe streets, and a Little League ball field. About half of the homes were built in the decade after World War II. Median family income in 2010 was $43,340.

Kelly, son of a shipyard worker, seldom goes far from the borough. He had to leave town to be born (at St. Vincent's Home for Unwed Mothers on nearby Woodland Avenue in Philadelphia). He spent two years at Fort Gordon in Georgia when he was drafted in the 1950s. And he has made one trip to Ireland, where his grandfather came from County Mayo.

Five of his six children live in the immediate Philadelphia area. So do most of his 17 grandchildren and - he paused a second - "I think 12 great-grandchildren."

He was mayor at the same time he was climbing poles for Philadelphia Electric Co. (later Peco). He ended up supervising tree-trimming work, and, as his political profile increased, he became a member of the company's political action committee.

After leaving Peco, he held a patronage appointment at the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority. He quit that job after heart surgery in November.

With more time on his hands, Kelly usually stops by Borough Hall daily. He meets with the borough manager, whose office he shares, and stops in to see the police chief. He is paid $4,000 a year as mayor and is in charge of the 14-member Police Department.

Mostly, he said, "the mayor is the ceremonial head of the borough." A seven-member elected Borough Council sets the budget and adopts ordinances.

He has performed "well over 1,000" marriages.

The borough, now ablaze in rhododendrons, has its own library, two volunteer fire companies, and a 14-acre park. It picks up trash twice a week and sweeps the streets once a week. It has an Easter egg hunt, Fourth of July fireworks, and a tree-lighting at Christmas.

When the trashmen stop at his house, they always remember a bone for Kelly's dog, Shamus.

"Right now, our problem is keeping taxes down and providing the same services," Kelly said. "There is no room to grow."

By not contracting for services, Collingdale gets to hire its own people on an old-fashioned patronage basis. That helps the local Republican Party, of which Kelly is chairman, retain its grip on every local office, even as Collingdale has become more Democratic in terms of voter registration.

Like other Delco boroughs, Collingdale is more racially diverse than it once was - a bit less than two-thirds white and a bit more than one-third black. The 2010 census found few Hispanics. Many of the new residents are from West Africa, particularly Liberia.

The Rev. Michael Fitzpatrick, rector of Grace Reformed Episcopal Church, said the new residents had revived his church, which had shrunk to 30 weekly attendees.

"I think the people we are getting are of a lower economic status, generally speaking," Fitzpatrick said. Borough politics is "probably the farthest thing from their minds. Most of them are working two jobs."

Collingdale voted for Barack Obama in 2008. David Landau, the county Democratic chairman, said his party doesn't yet have much of a presence in the borough.

There's been no major political controversy for years, Landau said, and the Democrats didn't even have a candidate to run against Kelly in 2010. The last time he was in a real contest was 19 years ago, and that was between two GOP factions.

Democrats "will catch up with registration and demographic change," Landau said.

Kelly can see the economic change behind the well-kept lawns.

Crime is more of a concern in recent years. A merchant was shot to death last year in his MacDade Boulevard shop, a rarity that unsettled the borough.

Collingdale always has been a union town. Residents earned good wages and benefits at Sun Ship in Chester, where Kelly's father was employed; at Westinghouse in Lester; at GE across the line in Philadelphia; and at other plants that have closed or dramatically cut back.

At last count, Kelly said, he knew of 54 housing foreclosures since about 2008. "We never had that before," he said. "People just walked away."

He said he wished he could help people more. There's only so much a mayor can do.

He hasn't decided whether he'll run for a 12th term in 2014, he said.

He thinks he probably will.

"It will depend on my health."

Contact Tom Infield

at 610-313-8205,, or follow on Twitter @tinfield.

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