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Wes Kelley celebrates 80th birthday

Mickey Starling

Wes Kelley is known around Madison County for his friendly demeanor and his trademark handshakes that have been a familiar part of our culture since 1957. Kelley, who still shoots a mean round of golf, turns 80 years young on Monday, Sept. 16.

Madison residents spent 24 years enjoying Kelley as he served as the Madison County Tax Collector from 1980 until 2004, when he retired. Before that, the ever-smiling Kelley greeted customers at Setzer's Grocery Store, which later became Pantry Pride. Kelley managed the store from 1962 until 1980. "The good people of Madison put me in the grocery store and they also got me out," said Kelley.

Kelley was introduced to the grocery business due to a chance meeting his father had at a Jacksonville produce market with Mr. Setzer, who owned a chain of grocery stores along Hwy. 90, in the state of Florida. Kelley's dad asked Setzer, "When you gonna give my boys a job?" Both Kelley and his brother, the late P.F. Kelley, Jr., were working in Setzer's Live Oak store on the following Saturday.

Kelley grew up the fourth of 11 kids in Jennings, to a family of sharecroppers who were no strangers to hard work. Kelley worked in Live Oak until the Setzer's store manager in Madison called in December of 1957, asking if they had "anybody who wants to go to work?" Kelley jumped at the opportunity and began work in Madison the next week. Kelley was still in high school at the time and was lacking only a half-credit to graduate. However, the new job opportunity had his full attention. "I 'quituated' high school so I could get to work and I got my diploma later, in Madison," said Kelley.

Kelley owes much of his success in life to the way he has always treated people. Everyone got the same version of Kelley, all the time, which included abundant smiles and handshakes, as well as his full attention when he was needed. This simple formula caused him never to lose an election while serving as a tax collector. His charisma and charm also endeared him to his favorite customer, Janice Robinson, who met Kelley in 1959, while shopping in Setzer's Madison store. The two were married the following year, at Lee First Baptist Church, by Rev. I.T. Carter. The Kelleys have two children: Greg and Rebecca (Becky) and they thoroughly enjoy their four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Though Kelley has long been out of the public eye, he can still be found hammering balls down the fairway or shaking hands with everyone, as though he were meeting them for the first time. He is slow to take credit for his success, pointing instead to the community he loves and that has loved him back. "I appreciate the kindness of all the people in Madison, who are still so good to us," said Kelley.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Wes. May your handshakes remain firm and your tee shots high and straight.

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