There were several times when Duluth City Councilman Kelly Kelkenberg’s military and emergency management experience were invaluable to the city and Gwinnett County as a whole, according to county Commissioner Kirkland Carden.
The Duluth City Council turned to Kelkenberg when city leaders were trying to figure out how to prevent the city from becoming the victim of a cyber attack, and while preparing for Tropical Storm Irma in 2017. And, as the county and its cities worked in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to come up with a plan to try to combat pandemic, Kelkenberg was one of the people they turned to for advice.
Kelkenberg was a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a retired employee of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after all.
“He really brought a lot of experience with his emergency management background, managing people — because, in his military and his government experience, he had people under him — but he also brought experience with his financial background,” said Carden, who served on the City Council with Kelkenberg for two years before being elected to the county commission.
“I think he brought his experience in that world to the council and we were much better for it.”
The city of Duluth announced Monday that Kelkenberg, who had battled cancer for years, had died. He was in his third term in office and had been a member of the Duluth City Council for a decade.
In addition to being on the city council, he also served as president of the Gwinnett Municipal Association in 2020 and received that organization’s Leadership and Service Award earlier this year.
Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris called Kelkenberg “wonderful man of high integrity and strong community commitment.” She also recalled sitting next to Kelkenberg at meetings of the City Council, and how the old military side of his personality could sometimes come out during those meetings — and how it could be for humorous effect.
“Sometimes in his ‘Colonel’ voice he would loudly and boldly, slam his fist on the desk and vote ‘Yes’ or maybe ‘No’ and I would literally jump out of my seat,” Harris said. “He would smile and give me that side eye!
“He was a very compassionate person and carried a principle centered focus when deliberating difficult decisions. One knew where (he) stood and never doubted his commitment. Loosing Kelly is a huge void for Duluth.”
During his career in the Air Force, Kelkenberg received several military honors, including Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Service Commendation and Air Force Commendation among others.
Serving on the City Council was not the extent of Kelkenberg’s work in the Duluth community, however.
He was active in the Duluth Fall Festival and served as the Sign Committee co-chairman with his wife of 32 years, Kimberly. He was also the festival’s co-chairman, with Annette McIntosh, in 2017.
He had also served as a planning commissioner, zoning board of appeals and the advanced budget committee for the city.
“In 1999, shortly after my retirement from the United States Air Force, my family and I relocated to Duluth from the Washington D.C. area to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” Kelkenberg said in his City Council biography on DuluthGa.net. “We chose Duluth because of its small town feel, diverse population and the quality of schools.
“I believe citizens must take an active part in their community in order for it to advance.”
In a statement, the city said Kelkenberg will have a long-lasting impact on Duluth.
“He was a passionate supporter of all things Duluth and was part of a team that saw the development of Parsons Alley and city-wide growth,” city officials said. “He was a mentor and friend to many.
“We join with his family in mourning his loss but benefitting from having known him and his leadership. His legacy will impact our city for generations to come.”
A member of Duluth First United Methodist church, his other activities in the community included serving on the boards of directors for Sentinels of Freedom-Gwinnett and Plaque Busters LLC; serving on the Gwinnett Chamber’s Engage Gwinnett Committee; and being a member of American Legion Post 251 in Duluth, the Air Force Association, Reserve Officers Association, Military Officers Association of America and the Gwinnett County Community Emergency Response Team.
“He was a local icon, a career civil servant, a career public servant, an amazing man (and) an amazing husband and father,” Carden said. “And, he will be missed.”
Carden said he saw Kelkenberg as mentor. The commissioner first knew Kelkenberg because Carden went to high school in Duluth with the councilman’s sons while his sister went to school with Kelkenberg’s daughter.
The biggest lesson Carden said he learned from Kelkenberg about what it takes to hold is elected office concerned the commitment it takes to meet the demands of the office, including taking phone calls from constituents, meeting with residents and listening to their concerns and showing up for community events.
“He was one of those ones who taught me a lot about the time commitment,” Carden said. “When I was kicking the tires and wanting to run in spring of 2017, his concern with me was ‘Are you in a point in your career where you can do this, where you can campaign, and you can put energy into this position when you are elected, if you are elected?’
“It was just a very honest conversation, as he is. He was just a very straight-forward, honest kind of person.”