If the old-timers on Kent Island had been right, Lou Kelley would not be where he is today -- set to retire after a 39-year career at the Bay Bridge, the state's largest and (he says) most important public structure.
Kelley, a lifelong island resident who grew up in Stevensville, has barely moved from the shadows of the steel and concrete behemoth. He remembers riding the ferries that once linked the Eastern Shore with the rest of Maryland and watching as construction crews began work on the first span in the late 1940s.
He recalls how the local residents scoffed at the idea of the bridge.
"I can tell you that a lot of people were convinced the bridge would never last," Kelley said. "They were sure that the whole thing would come down the first time the bay froze over. They'd see ice do a lot of damage every winter and they thought this would be the same."
That was when the state had worse winters, when Kent Island youngsters ice-skated on frozen ponds in the marsh and when tugboats cruised the bay crunching ice a foot or more thick. That was when a "22-year-old kid took a temporary job that turned into a career," Kelley said.
Kelley, 62, has become a fixture for about 100 Maryland Transportation Authority employees, many of whom have worked for years with the departing bridge administrator, whose last official day is today.
Kelley has been around almost as long as the $45 million Bay Bridge. Hired in 1959, seven years after the opening of the first 4-mile-long span, he started as a tow truck driver and was named an officer with the bridge police force, a unit that became the Maryland Toll Facilities Police.
Since taking over the top job at the bridge in 1980, Kelley has held a second-floor corner office in the transportation authority's administration building. With glass on two sides, it offers a commanding view of Sandy Point State Park and the sweeping curve of the twin spans that reach nearly 200 feet above the bay.
"In 39 years, I've been here in all kinds of weather, all different times of the day and I can honestly say that I never tire of it," Kelley said. "It's a sight to behold. Maybe I'm prejudiced because I've always lived and worked here, but the scenery is as impressive as any place in the country."
Clarence Morgan, who retired last year after 40 years with the force, remembers when the pair patrolled the single span on Harley-Davidsons, the easiest way to negotiate traffic.
Both men speak fondly of the big, loud motorcycles that were used to control traffic in the days when two-way traffic could be accommodated on the single span only by alternating eastbound and westbound traffic in 30-minute increments -- a tactic that caused traffic backups of 15 miles or more.
Veterans of the motorcycle unit, disbanded in 1973 when the second span opened, can recall working 14-hour days and never getting a summer weekend off. Plodding through stop-and-go bridge traffic, the machines often got so hot that exhaust pipes turned purple, they say.
"I've known him forever, it seems like," said Morgan. "He's worked his way right up through the ranks. He was always management-oriented, but always fair."
Kelley gets much of the credit for initiatives such as the annual Bay Bridge Walk, which drew more than 50,000 pedestrians May 3, the 24th year of the event.
"If Lou said something is going to get done, even something as big as the bridge walk, you could absolutely go to the bank on it," said Tom Freburger, a 20-year transportation authority administrator. "The really remarkable thing is that through all the years, I don't remember ever having seen Lou get mad or lose control."
While traffic woes and frustrated motorists were the most pressing concern, bridge police and other staff members also have dealt with serious accidents over the years, and they can remember at least two armed robberies.
Kelley, who this year was responsible for a $3.2 million operational budget, says the biggest changes came after the second span opened in 1973. He credits former Gov. William Donald Schaefer with pushing through a package of road improvements in the late 1980s that helped eliminate Bay Bridge bottlenecks.
The increase in traffic -- 1.1 million cars in 1952 to nearly 23 million this year -- "almost boggles your mind," he said.
For retirement, Kelley plans "just the normal things" -- spending more time with family, traveling and boating. He will stay on Kent Island, of course.
Kelley says he will leave with a sense of accomplishment he acknowledges might sound corny.
"I'm really proud of the work we do," Kelley said. "If you think of the stereotype of public employees standing around leaning on shovels while one guy does the work, it's really not like that. The people here are always trying to accommodate the traveling public."
Pub Date: 12/31/98