Service of former Douglas County commissioner, lobbyist and Zesto fan Mike Kelley spans decades

By: - September 12, 2023 5:57 pm

Michael “Mike” Kelley walking with his son Sean in the Legislature. The elder Kelley died Friday of heart failure. He worked up until the final weeks of his life, said Sean. (Courtesy of Kelley family)

OMAHA — From soft-serve Zesto ice cream stands to the hard-charging halls of Nebraska’s State Capitol, Mike Kelley for the past half-century helped shape the civic and political landscape of his home state.

A graduate of Creighton University’s law school, Kelley in his earlier years ran the popular Clancy’s Pub, one of several businesses he grew and one that had been central to Omaha’s famed “Blarney Stone” capers.

Michael “Mike” Kelley, former Douglas County Board member, was also a big sports fan. (Courtesy of Kelley family)

He served on the Douglas County Board during most of the 1980s before shifting to his private practice, which centered on government relations and lobbying, appearing primarily before the Legislature and boards such as the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

Until shortly before his death this weekend at age 76, Kelley remained busy working in public roles that he enjoyed, said his son, Sean, a third-generation Kelley lawyer who shared a practice with his dad that recently took on City of Omaha lobbying duties.

A heart that adored family, including seven grandchildren, and sports, particularly golf and the Chicago Cubs and Creighton Bluejays, weakened rapidly after Kelley felt ill during a recent liquor commission meeting, Sean said. Other survivors include spouse, Kathleen Doherty Kelley, and sons Tom and James.

Friends and relatives remember Kelley as being quick-witted, affable, able to navigate the state’s political systems and well-known in different circles.

“He liked to say, ‘To laugh is to live — don’t take yourself too seriously,’” Sean said.

With that mantra, Kelley rolled with the often brutal ups and downs of government-related work, yet kept involved in spirited businesses that drew a diverse crowd.

A young MIke Kelley 50 years ago, at age 26. (Courtesy of Kelley family)

Take Clancy’s near 72nd and Pacific Streets, the pub Kelley took over from his dad, Tom, a former pro baseball player and politico. The business was a must-stop on St. Patrick’s Day, a go-to after Ak-Sar-Ben horse races, and a meeting place for Douglas County court figures.

Kelley and a partner opened another Clancy’s site farther west. He eventually sold his interest in both and launched the Blatt Beer & Table, near Omaha’s new home of the College World Series.

A dear part of the Blatt, for Kelley, was its Zesto ice cream window. That operation rang nostalgic because Kelley had owned a Zesto business near the old CWS diamond at the now-gone Rosenblatt Stadium.

“A crowning business achievement” is how son Sean described it. “Dad was particularly proud of finding a way to make sure Zesto stayed part of the College World Series.” 

Kelley dotted the new Blatt with old-school photos of the Rosenblatt, where in 1948 his father Tom pitched in the first game ever played there.

“He loved baseball,” Sean said of his own dad. “Ice cream and baseball went so well together — and he added his own twist, which was cold beer.”

Kelley’s longtime friend Mike Fahey was mayor when the CWS moved to the new north downtown Omaha stadium. But Fahey chuckled at a different chapter: when a man-made Blarney Stone that had mysteriously showed up outside Fahey’s downtown pub in the ‘70s was snatched and landed at Clancy’s tavern.

Mike Kelley and son Sean at State Capitol (Courtesy of Kelley family)

Estimated to weigh 2,700 pounds, the stolen stone led to a fun series of St. Paddy’s Day Blarney Stone burglaries and ongoing banter from pub owners.

“He was gregarious, accomplished in many different ways, and very well-connected throughout the city, in a good way,” Fahey said, adding that Kelley supported and was respected by people of both political persuasions.

Kelley’s time governing on the Douglas County Board, 1981-1988, began with an appointment to fill the term of Dan Lynch, who had resigned. A longtime Douglas County official who was part of the appointing panel told a reporter at the time that one of the reasons Kelley stood out was because he was a “party man” and the leading Democrat who had applied.

Kelley, quick with the quip, said at his swearing-in ceremony that he was headed to a reception: “Since The World-Herald has described me as a party man, I thought we should have a party.”

Mike Kelley, far right, with Douglas County and Democratic Party officials including, from left, Kathleen Kelley, Bernice Labedz, Frank Wear, Red Munnelly, Walt Spellman and Tom Doyle. (Courtesy of Kelley family)

He went on to win an election in the then-countywide race. He served a stint as board chairman and weighed in on issues such as: the creation of a county lottery; consideration of a minor league hockey team; the future of the county’s longtime Field Club property; a 350-bed addition to the overcrowded County Corrections Center; and improvement of the county’s work-release program.

County commissioners in the 1980s also had a hand in development of what would become the new ConAgra campus.

Current board chair Mary Ann Borgeson described Kelley as a “pillar” of the county.

“He went on to become our lobbyist and through his knowledge, expertise and relationships helped us as a County Board with legislative issues — which ultimately was good for the taxpayers,” she said. “He was a gentle giant in county government.”

The funeral service for Michael “Mike” Kelley is Thursday, 10:30 a.m. at Christ the King Catholic Church. A visitation and wake service are to be held Wednesday, the evening prior.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics.