A look back at the life of Berkshire County activist Don Quinn Kelley

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Related | Dr. Don Kelley, 1945 - 2016

With great vision and a sense of humor, Don Quinn Kelley spent three decades trying to improve the Berkshire's quality of life.

The Chicago native was passionate about social justice, celebrating one's heritage and supporting the arts reflected in his work as a educator and champion of community projects.

He and wife Sandra Burton Kelley were founding members of summer-long Lift Ev'ry Voice, the Berkshires' fine-arts biennial celebration of African-American culture.

Mr. Kelley's voice was silenced last week with his passing, but friends and colleagues say he left a lasting legacy.

"It's a great loss to the community, but his spirit will live on through Lift Ev'ry Voice," said Megan Whilden, Pittsfield's former cultural development director.

"He was a doer who focused on making change — he lived what he believed," added Shirley Edgerton, local youth advocate who co-chaired with Kelley the inaugural Lift Ev'ry Voice in 2011.

Edgerton found Kelley easy going, especially during uneasy situations.

"When we often interacted and got a tense moment, we would both inject humor and the tension would melt away," she said.

Surrounded by his family, Kelley, of Hancock and New York City, died Wednesday in Springfield at the age of 70. Besides his second wife, he is survived by a daughter, two sons and two grandchildren. A celebration of his life is planned for a later date, according to an obituary notice in Saturday's Eagle.

Born Sept. 28, 1945, Don Quinn Kelley, Ph.D was an historian and professor emeritus and founding faculty member at Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York. He was a partner in ThinkgLarge.org, an organization that fosters video and film projects of social relevance and had been involved in human rights projects in the U.S. Central America and Africa.

Kelley also served as a trustee of the Samuel Harrison House Museum in Pittsfield and five years ago, helped spearhead the are's first-ever "Juneteenth" event. The festival marks the day, June 19, 1865, that news of the Emancipation Proclamation — issued two and a half years earlier — reached Texas, the last state to learn of President Abraham Lincoln proclaiming slaves to be free and the end of the Civil War.

Don and Sandra Kelley, married nearly 26 years, were among four recipients in March of the Berkshire Museum's Berkshire Award given to those who made significant contributions to making and supporting artistic, historical and natural heritage in the county.

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Kelley was greatly influenced by civil rights leaders, such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In an Eagle interview three years ago, he cited King as an inspiration for starting Medgar Evers College at CUNY.

"I used the 'Strength to Love' by Martin Luther King, Jr. as a base. It's a book of his sermons. And in that book he says it takes a strong person to love, that weak people give up or give in," Kelley said. "So if you love someone, you have to be strong for them."

Kelley's death is more than an individual loss, as he and his wife Sandra were inseparable when involved with the community.

"They were a very powerful team," Edgerton said. "It was clear they had bonded around certain beliefs."

While Don Quinn Kelley's teaching and causes were rooted in African-American culture and history, he was reaching out to everyone in the community.

"He was very inclusive and welcoming, he had a sense of hospitality," Whilden said.

Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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