Peoria Author, Historian Norm Kelly Dies

Aug 6, 2020

Norm Kelly, the well-known Peoria historian and author, has died following a year-long battle with cancer.

A graduate of Bradley University and Woodruff High School who grew up in the El Vista neighborhood, Kelly died Tuesday. He was 88.  

“He was as close to me as a brother,” said Bruce Brown, a restauranteur and former Peoria City Council member. “Central Illinois suffered a big loss. I mean, he is one of the icons around here.”

Kelly and Brown worked together in leading efforts to relocate “The Shaft,” a 153-year-old Civil War memorial, to Springdale Cemetery. Brown said the two often traveled together and recalled their most recent meeting.

“We were talking, just having a very frank discussion about everything, including his coming passing,” said Brown. “He was a fantastic writer, but also had a great sense of humor, and he asked me, ‘What are you going to do when you get the call that I passed away?’ Because I'd like you to get some Irish whiskey and get drunk and remember all the great times we had,’ which I did, by the way.”

City of Peoria spokesperson Stacy Peterson said she collaborated with Kelly on many projects when she worked for the Peoria Public Library. She said several of his numerous books on the city touched on its seedier side.

“I always say that Norm was a truth-teller,” said Peterson. “I mean, he was a storyteller, but he was a truth- teller, and he had a really engaging and frank way of telling things.

“We did a four-part series called, ‘Peoria: A Lusty, Bawdy River Town,’ and I remember that we had to keep moving from room to room because the capacity just got greater and greater and greater as this series continued.”

Kelly served during the Korean War and later as a medic with the U.S. Air Force. He went on to become a paralegal and a private investigator.

“He had an uncanny ability to look at somebody and kind of get a pretty good read on their character and how they function,” said Brown. “He knew people. He knew the great ones and the small ones … and everybody else.”

Peterson said Peoria is fortunate to have its history chronicled and preserved by Kelly’s writings.

“It absolutely is a loss for the whole city,” said Peterson. “But again, we’re very lucky that he has left us with that legacy of his work so we can all go back and find some comfort in that.”

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