Ernie Kell, Long Beach’s first elected mayor, died Saturday. He was 88.
The affable self-made millionaire flew his own plane painted in the official city colors of blue, gold and white — and rode around the city’s streets on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle wearing a leather jacket, helmet and goggles. Kell served as mayor from 1988 to 1994, during a difficult period of change for Long Beach, and helped make the city’s convention center a reality,
Kell died at his home in El Dorado Park Estates on the city’s Eastside after battling with cancer for four months, his wife, Jackie, said Sunday.
Beverly O’Neill, a former Long Beach mayor who defeated Kell in his bid for reelection in 1994, praised him for “his honesty and leadership in providing stability during difficult times in the city he loved.”
Current Mayor Robert Garcia said Kell was “an incredible leader who will be greatly missed. He and his wife, Jackie, did so much for the city. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family.”
One of Kell’s proudest achievements as mayor was spearheading construction of the expansive Long Beach Convention Center. It came during a time when the city was on the brink of losing its Naval base, downtown retailing struggled and commercial jet-manufacturing jobs were being slashed.
“The Convention Center opened in the fall of my first year as mayor,” O’Neill said. “I received many compliments and was so embarrassed because I had nothing to do with getting it built. That was to Ernie’s credit.”
Kell also was proud of his appointment of a task force on the homeless, his creation of a historic preservation office at City Hall and his efforts to raise concern over growth issues.
Kell was a political unknown when he ran for the Long Beach City Council for the first time in 1975. His wife said he won because he tried what was then considered a relatively new way of campaigning: walking the neighborhood and knocking on every door. “There were 13 candidates in that race and people were asking, ‘Who the heck is Ernie Kell?’ He figured the best way to meet them was with the personal touch at their homes. It turned out people loved that and loved Ernie and he won.”
Kell served on the City Council for 13 years and had been appointed mayor by his colleagues — a process that changed in 1988 when the city held its first mayoral election by popular vote.
That first term as mayor for Kell was for only two years. He ran for a full, four-year term in 1990 against Tom Clark, a longtime councilman, who thought he had won until late votes from Kell’s 5th District put him over the top. Even Kell supporters at a restaurant gathering thought Clark had won and were going home for the night when they were called back.
Clark, now 90 and living in Bixby Knolls, said he and Kell “had our disagreements, but, overall, he did a good job as mayor. I’m sorry he’s gone.”
Coming from modest beginnings, Kell was born on a farm in Washburn, North Dakota, on July 5, 1928. Politics ran in his family. Both of his grandfathers were elected officials in North Dakota, one a mayor. His father was the town tax assessor. Kell’s great grandfather was a mayor in a small town in France, and a great uncle sat on the French Supreme Court.
During the Great Depression, Kell’s family moved to Wilmington, where more jobs were available. He graduated from Banning High School, enlisted in the Merchant Marines “to see the world,” and was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving nine months in Korea during the Korean War in 1951.
Kell earned his AA degree from Long Beach City College and attended Cal State Long Beach for four years, majoring in architecture. He missed graduating, however, because he needed to complete two more courses he never finished. “He always said he was going to go back, but he never had the time,” his wife said.
Kell eventually worked for Western Detailing Services as an architectural draftsman. He also bought five acres of strawberry and vegetable fields in Fountain Valley, which turned out to be a wise and lucrative investment, as real estate values soared as the land was developed.
In the early 1970s, Kell was living in a Long Beach apartment complex where he met a young teacher whom he married on Nov. 16, 1973.
“He would wait for me to get on the elevator so he could talk to me privately,” Jackie said Sunday. “From then on, he would call me “The Girl on the Elevator.”
Jackie had her own taste of public office when she was elected to two terms on the Long Beach City Council from 1994 to 2002. Coincidentally, she won election to the City Council (in the Fifth District that Kell vacated to run for mayor) when her husband lost to Mayor O’Neill in his bid for re-election. If he had won, the Kells would have become the first husband-and-wife team as mayor and council member in Long Beach history.
“Ernie just had a love affair with his constituents,” Jackie said. “For Christmas in one year, he received more than 8,000 cards. He always said he wanted to get elected so he could help people.”
Survivors include his wife, Jackie; son, Brian; daughter, Julie; four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
A memorial will be at 11 a.m. Friday, May 12, at the Long Beach Yacht Club. An Ernie Kell Scholarship will be established at Long Beach City College.
NOTE: This story has been updated to add information about the memorial.