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Making an impression, and history

Edith Kelly, of Alexandria, didn’t think so much about becoming “the first woman” Douglas County commissioner when she ran, door-knocked, and was elected to office in 1974. “Honestly? I thought I could do as good a job as anyone. So I ran,” she said.

Edith was born and raised in Douglas County and has lived in this community all of her life. She is the youngest of four daughters to Cliff and Lillian Hove. She graduated from Alexandria High School, class of 1945, and attended the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota School of Business in Minneapolis. 

Edith Kelly served eight years on the Douglas County Commission in the 1970s and early 1980s. She was the first woman elected to a commission seat in the county. Photo by Rachel Barduson

When Edith decided to make her bid as a county commissioner, she and her husband, Don, were co-owners of Rural Publishing Co., which published Rural Minnesota News, a monthly newspaper that had about 160,000 subscribers. Edith served as secretary/treasurer on the board and was an accountant for the publishing company. 

Edith was also the deputy registrar of motor vehicles for Douglas County from 1963-1975 before her election as a county commissioner. As a Douglas County commissioner, she served two full terms, eight years, before she and Don moved out of the district. 

“I became acquainted with the commissioners when I worked as a deputy registrar,” Edith explained. “I was as a ‘lay member’ of the Douglas County Welfare Board, and when I ran for an elective office, I just wanted to serve as a citizen. It wasn’t to make a statement; it was just my desire to serve. It’s how I was raised.”

Edith’s father, Cliff Hove, was Douglas County’s first chairman of the rural electrification board. You might say Edith was involved in community service at a very early age. At the very least, she witnessed the importance of serving the community, growth and progress within her community.  

“You learn that you must work with people – all kinds of people. Listen to them. You might not always agree, but be sensitive to what they are saying,” she said. 

Kelly always had an interest in local government, making her a perfect fit for serving as a commissioner.

In a candidate interview for the Lake Region Press in 1974, Edith’s experience as a businesswoman was clear. She explained, “While working for 11 years in the office of deputy registrar of motor vehicles, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with many citizens of Douglas County. I am an officer of a publishing business and am aware of the problems faced by small businesses. Being born on a farm and spending my early years there, I have always maintained my interest in agriculture and know of its importance to this area.”

Edith was elected to serve as the first woman commissioner of Douglas County, during the era of the Equal Rights Amendment. On March 22, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states for ratification. The Equal Rights Amendment, in its most recently proposed form, read, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” 

Edith represented the first four Alexandria city wards on the commission.  She beat out her opponent two-to-one in all four precincts. During her terms, Edith felt it important that she be as informed as possible about the other districts. Many Sunday afternoons would find her checking out township and county roads, etc., so that areas of Rose City and/or Kensington were as familiar as the city of Alexandria.

According to her daughter, Denise, it wasn’t an easy decision to run for office. Edith and  Don, had three children, and they told their mother that her involvement, and her standing up for her values, was helpful to them in their adult lives. 

“Mom seemed so capable and self-assured to her children. Years later we became aware that it wasn’t always easy for her. She apparently felt she had to be vigilant merely because she was the only female in a position that had been exclusively male and not necessarily because there may have been differences of opinion. My sister and I were extremely proud of our mother, and I think my brother dealt with women in a more enlightened manner because he was brought up seeing them as equals.” Denise said. Edith added, “They were also taught to always vote!”

An election ad from the 1974 Lake Region Press. Contributed photo

Looking back on it now, Edith reflected, “As a citizen, I didn’t think of it necessarily as making a statement. Instead, I knew that I understood business. I knew I would listen…be a listener and become an advisor. I didn’t always agree, but I knew my job was to hear what the people had to say and act upon the issues according to my values. And I did the best I could. I enjoyed serving the local government.  And, when I was done, I knew someone else would take the reins, that’s how it works…and that’s okay.”

Edith was selected as Alexandria’s Business and Professional Woman of the Year (BPW) in 1982. As a member, she served on various committees, some of which included chairman of the Young Career Woman Program, both local and in the district, and chairman for the Individual Development Program (IDP) and the Legislature. 

In 1982 she wrote, “It would be a lot easier for me to work in our business and not be actively involved in public affairs. However, I feel an honest duty to give of my time and effort to help run and be involved in government. Public service is very demanding, and your hide must be tough, but knowing you are applying an honest and intelligent effort to the problems that face county government today has its own reward. I feel citizens should be involved in government, even if it is only to become informed about candidates and to vote.” 

As BPW’s Woman of the Year in 1982, her best advice for young women just starting out in their careers was to “learn everything about your job, even if it is a job you feel beneath your capabilities. Accept responsibility and be ready to handle it by taking courses outside your work to help you grow as a person as well as professionally. Remember always, you are an example. Get to know and support other women.” Today, Edith said, “Thank goodness many women are running for office now.”

Today, 37 years after that interview, Edith Kelly summed it up. “You know, my mother used to always say, ‘Take a pail of water, put your finger in it and pull it out, see what a huge impression you have made.” My mother just wanted me to keep things in perspective. Didn’t mean I shouldn’t try in every way I could.”

I think it’s fair to say, Edith not only made a huge impression, she made history.

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