Philas Kelly holds a photo of himself at the Matterhorn in the Alps decades ago while talking about old times recently.

Philas Kelly holds a photo of himself at the Matterhorn in the Alps decades ago while talking about old times recently.

Photo by Donna Agusti

Farmington centenarian, 104, shares life stories, lessons

By: Sherri Kolade | C&G Newspapers | Published January 15, 2018

FARMINGTON  — Like windows to the soul, the front hallway of 104-year-old Farmington resident Philas Kelly’s apartment provides an entry to his heart.

Framed photos of a 600-year-old bridge in Austria, a mountainous landscape out west, and a church in the Alps line his apartment walls.

“Isn’t that something?” Kelly said looking at his vivid photographic handiwork Dec. 27 at his home, where he has lived since 1972.

Kelly, known for his photography — he has turned many pictures into unique Christmas cards that he sends to family and friends — is a retired Ford Motor Co. employee. He is the oldest living member of the Michigan National Guard and is the presumed only living member of the then-107th Observation Squadron of the Michigan National Guard, now named the 107th Fighter Squadron. 

Kelly has visited Italy, the Alps several times, Ireland three times, Germany, Austria, Portugal and the Arctic — in the middle of winter. And he has taken multiple trips out West.

The globetrotter is often asked by others why he stays in Farmington. Kelly said it’s because of his daughter, Judy, and two granddaughters (Kelly and Corie, both of Lake Orion) who live in the area.

Kelly’s apartment also reflects other things he holds dear, such as photographs on walls of family and friends, and a collage of himself — propped up on the floor — taking pictures or standing near the Eiffel Tower. Knickknacks placed on tables throughout his apartment include a small bust of Pope John Paul II, an unopened 1996 Christmas Coca-Cola bottle and a glass snail.

Kelly’s colorful past — which includes meeting world-renowned photographer Ansel Adams at a photography convention in 1969 — had  humble beginnings after he started working at a gas station at Trumbull Avenue and Michigan Avenue (across from Tiger Stadium) at around 15 years old.

He earned $17.50 a week to help support his mother and two younger sisters, who have since died. He began working there full-time after his father’s death from pneumonia in 1932. 

Around that time, Detroit Judge James Chenot, a gas station customer, helped him land another job.

“He wrote a letter that got me in the Ford Rouge Plant,” Kelly said. “I went to work for Ford in 1935 — I would have been 22 then. At that time, the plant employed 100,000 men. The job I got was part of the steel mill operation.” 

In 1937, he joined the Michigan National Guard at the encouragement of several friends already in the Michigan National Guard who all lived in Corktown.

“They prevailed upon me to join,” he said.

Upon joining, he became a member of the photo section of the 107th Observation Squadron until 1940. 

That same year, he was transferred to the main office steel mill accounting department in the Rouge Plant.

“That is where I learned to operate with a yellow pad and a No. 2 pencil — I became a schedule writer … and I was on that job for about a year,” he said.

Kelly had a lot of gumption — and something extra — in his back pocket, as he continued to obtain job promotions and receive recognition, seemingly without seeking it out. Such was the case one afternoon in 1940 when he was promoted to the accounting department at Ford; while there, he held down other responsibilities.

“That changed my life,” he said. “Instead of going back into the plant, I went into the general office where I learned to … wear a suit and tie, and it was a different life for me, and I worked the rest of my life as a salaried employee rather than a hourly worker.”

He said that the backdrop of his life was intertwined with World War II.

“We were just a year away from the start of WWII,” he said, adding that as the country got closer to the start of war, he began working on war contracts — working with suppliers and the like.

On occasion, he would go out to the Willow Run Bomber Plant and in “amazement” watch one of the B-24 bombers roll out of the plant every hour.

After Kelly retired from Ford, he stayed active — as he continues to do today — as an avid photographer. Kelly is also known, locally, as an active voter.    

Mary Mullison, Deputy Clerk and Human Resources coordinator, said in an email that Kelly first came to her attention in 2014, when he returned his absentee voter ballot with a note about his age of 101 years old at the time and being “very proud to vote” written in strong handwriting above his signature.

“Since then, I have been keeping watch for his applications and ballots, and most recently he wrote on his 2017 AV application, ‘104 yrs, oldest MI Nat’l Guard member,’” she said. “It was heartening to see his enthusiasm, and I actually keep a copy of those up at my desk as a reminder to keep involved in the things that are important.”

Mullison said she cannot confirm that Kelly is the oldest Farmington resident, but he was the oldest person voting in the November 2017 election.  

“That makes him the oldest active voter in Farmington.  The next oldest voter was 98 at the time of the November election,” Mullison said.

Kelly was honorably discharged from the Michigan National Guard 77 years ago.

In other forms of recognition, Kelly was given a letter on his birthday in 2013 — when he turned 100 years old — from Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., congratulating Kelly on his birthday milestone.

“You have the distinction of being a member of a very select group,” the letter read. “The extended Ford family — for 78 years of the company’s 110-year history.”

One of Kelly’s most recent Christmas cards he sent is a picture of him on the front wrapped in a Valor of Honor quilt he received in 2017; that quilt is neatly — and proudly — laid atop his bed.

 Kelly, born in Ahmic Harbour, Ontario, moved to Detroit with his family in 1923, where his father found a better job in Corktown as a tool and die maker for Chrysler.

In the late 1950s, he joined the Photographic Guild of Detroit. He became its president.

“That was a prominent camera club known all over the world for its excellent work,” he said. “That is where I, again, started pursuing photography.” 

Kelly noted that he joined after a hiatus from the photo section of the 107th Observation Squadron. 

While in the Photographic Guild, he created photography classes to raise funds for the group; those classes brought in hundreds of people over the years.

During the 1960s he joined the Photographic Society of America. In 1982, he was elected Fellow of the PSA.

“There are about 200 fellows worldwide,” he said, adding that he is the oldest member of the PSA. He chose not to enter into the realm of digital photography 

He is also an alumnus of the University of Detroit.

With all of his accolades and recognition, Kelly said that he still has questions.

“I do think of the future; I think of the future all the time. I often wonder what my life would have been?” he said, adding that he wonders how the species (of humans and animals) came to be. “How did that all come about? I think about that all the time, and I know you do more of that as you grow old.”

He said that with his questions, he knows one thing for sure, especially after his wife, Olive, died of cancer at 57 in 1967, and his daughter had a double mastectomy — after having bilateral breast cancer  — in 2015.

“The day comes that somebody learns what causes cancer will be a day in the life of all of us,” he said.

Kelly’s only daughter, Judy Green, 74, of Okemos, said that her mother’s death at 57 years old and her father’s life is a stark contrast. She said that her mother was three years older than her father. 

“She would be 107 today,” Green said, adding that her parents met through a mutual friend, were married in 1937, and she was raised in Detroit.

“My father has known the full gamut of every person in my life, really,” she said, adding that her father has been at many of her parties and gatherings making friends and keeping in touch.

Even today, Kelly sends his detailed, unique Christmas cards to people he met through her in the 1970s.

“I think the connection with the family  and … friends … it really is remarkable,” she said. “He’s always known our friends; never been excluded from anything — always had a great time at the party. He was the life of the party.”

Green’s youngest daughter, Corie, a graphic designer, has helped Kelly with his Christmas cards for the past 10 years.

Green said that her father is stoic, yet very caring, especially after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2015.

“He was wonderful during that time; he was extremely concerned,” she said, adding that he offered to foot medical bills, although it never came to that. 

It is evident that Kelly cares.

When asked how he planned to spend New Year’s, he said he was going to take dinner to some acquaintances struggling financially on New Year’s Eve.

Green said that every time the family gets together, they think about how it could possibly be the last time Kelly attends.

“My dad is still at these things and he’s always included in everything,” she said. “He is one of very few people to live at this age. His mind is very sharp. … We’re a very blessed family.”

Green added that her daughter and son-in-law, Rick Thomas, lived in Royal Oak for 12 years starting around 2000.

“He used to go out there all the time,” Green said of Kelly. “When he was driving, he would drive to Royal Oak to visit them all the time.”

Green added that her father was in the area often because he also had a photographer friend, around 90 years old, who still lives in Berkley.

“They would see each other off and on,” she said, adding that she and her father have extended family who also live in Clawson.

Kelly said that he attributes his longevity to his parents’ families living until their late 80s.

He said that the key to happiness, for him, is being active.

“I enjoy being with people ... and it’s just all around doing … what I think are the right kinds of things,” he said of eating fairly nutritiously. “I don’t do anything rash.”

He said, humorously, that he often tells people that he hasn’t eaten beef in about 15 years because he read that it is not proper to eat red meat.

“But … I always have hot dogs in my fridge. … Talk about a contradiction,” he said, adding that another quirk of his is to purchase a bottle of whiskey whenever he is at an airport preparing to fly home.

“I can open the drawer and show you six to eight bottles of whiskey — I never open them, I never drink whisky in my apartment. When I go out for dinner, I’ll have a Manhattan up.”

“I think I got two bottles of beer in the fridge now. I better keep those for New Year’s Eve,” he said.