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Clarence M. Kelley; FBI Director Guided Agency Through Post-Watergate Turmoil

August 06, 1997| From Times Staff and Wire Reports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Clarence M. Kelley, who succeeded J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI and steered the agency through the turmoil of the post-Watergate period, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Kelley, who had battled minor strokes and emphysema in recent years, died at home, said his wife, Shirley Kelley.

The law enforcement veteran joined the FBI fresh out of college in 1940, left to become chief of police in Kansas City in 1961, and was nominated to head the agency by President Richard Nixon in 1973. He served until 1978.

Kelley later said he had joined the FBI to gain some quick experience in the justice system, but soon developed a love for police work.

"It's one of those occupations that captures you, and that's all there is to it," he told a newspaper in 1986. "I just had an interesting career and rolled with it. I did the best I could."

Kelley was credited with helping to modernize crime-fighting techniques, such as using computers to track criminals, and won praise as an administrator who identified with street officers working the trenches.

He inherited an agency shaken by Watergate and in transition after the death of Hoover a year earlier. The FBI had two acting directors--L. Patrick Gray III and William D. Ruckelshaus--before Kelley was confirmed as director.

He assured the U.S. Senate as it weighed his confirmation that he would never yield to political pressure even from the White House, perhaps a prescient promise considering Nixon's later forced resignation from office.

"Clarence Kelley was the right person for the FBI at that time," said Terry Knowles, an agent from 1965 to 1989. "I think Clarence Kelley was directly responsible for getting us back on our feet."

Kelley allowed agents to develop more undercover investigations and sting operations for which the FBI since has become known, Knowles said.

Kelley survived a minor scandal of his own in 1976, when President Gerald R. Ford announced that he would keep Kelley as FBI director despite disclosures that he had accepted window drapery valances and a small cabinet from senior FBI officials for his home. The gifts became an issue in Ford's failed reelection campaign.

The director reimbursed the government $335 for the cost of labor and materials. But he retired in early 1978 when President Jimmy Carter chose William H. Webster to succeed him after a drawn-out search.

At the time Nixon appointed Kelley, he said that Kelley was the first on his list of 27 finalists.

Part of what won Kelley the job was his work as a bold administrator at Kansas City, where he was able to modernize that Police Department and raise it from a series of scandals.

Under Kelley's leadership, the force became one of the first in the nation in 1968 to install computers allowing officers to quickly check cars through license plate numbers.

"In 30 years with the department I worked under seven different chiefs," Sterling Ford, Kansas City chief of detectives under Kelley, told The Times in 1973 when Kelley was nominated. "In my last 10 years under Kelley, the department advanced more technically and in morale than in the other 20 years I was on the force.

"Kelley can be a stern disciplinarian, but he has a heart," Ford said.

Critics, however, said Kelley as a police chief was slow to embrace civil rights causes.

Alvin Brooks, a black Kansas City police officer who resigned in a dispute with Kelley over minority promotion policies, conceded that Kelley later grew to understand the civil rights movement as chief of the FBI.

After leaving Washington, Kelley started a Kansas City-based private investigation firm specializing in white-collar crime. He retired seven years ago.

In 1985, he learned firsthand the impact of crime when burglars ransacked his Kansas City home.

"I thought that after being chief of police and director of the FBI, they would stay away from me," Kelley said. "But I guess this shows that if they would do this to me, by God, it could happen to anybody."

Kelley was married to Ruby D. Kelley for 38 years before her death in 1975. They had two children, Mary Kelley Dobbins, 55, and Kent Clarence Kelley, 50, both of Kansas City; and three grandchildren.

He married Shirley Dyckes Kelley, 63, in 1976.

Born in Kansas City on Oct. 24, 1911, he graduated from the University of Kansas and received his law degree from the University of Missouri. He served as a naval officer during World War II, taking a leave from the FBI.

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