It is said that Sergeant Merlyn Kelly was the “quintessential patrol officer, who wrapped himself up in the black-and-white and went to work making sure the city was safe.” Known at the Santa Barbara Police Department simply as “Sarge” or “Kelly,” and by some as “The Bear” due to his imposing size — he was 6’3” and 260 pounds — being a public servant was his calling. He loved being out on the streets of Santa Barbara, assisting people. He started his career with the Santa Barbara Police Department when he was 21, and his watch lasted for 35-and-a-half years, under eight police chiefs.
Merlyn Kelly was born in Barstow, California, on October 17, 1941. When he was 10 years old, his father’s employer, Western Union, transferred the family to Santa Barbara, where Merlyn lived for the next 63 years. He graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 1959 and later received a degree from Santa Barbara City College in administration of justice.
The 35-and-a-half years of police work spanned many job assignments. Among Kelly’s job titles were Supervisor of Patrol, Supervisor of Motors, Supervisor of K-9, Parking Enforcement, and Special Events; he was also a Detective Sergeant and a member of the SWAT Team. Working with the United States Secret Service when president Ronald Reagan came to Santa Barbara was especially gratifying. On his off-hours, Sgt. Kelly participated in the California Police Olympics for several years in the shotgun venue, and he was a player on the S.B. Police Department (SBPD) Softball Team. He loved fishing on Lake Cachuma in his bass boat, and he also flew gliders. He enjoyed riding his motorcycle, taking many camping trips with his police buddies. His favorite job, though, was pounding a beat.
Sgt. Kelly was president of the Santa Barbara Police Officers Association, the Police Benevolent Association, and the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. It was important to him to be part of improving the working conditions for the members of the SBPD.
Kelly’s desire was always to help others. He felt being a police officer in his hometown community was a way to accomplish that. According to Kelly’s supervisors, if he were to err as an officer, it would be on the side of kindness. However, that didn’t stop his actions that were recognized when he was awarded the H. Thomas Guerry Award for Valor in 1972. In the early morning hours, Sgt. Kelly got a radio call regarding a man acting strangely at the Blue Onion parking lot on State Street (currently IHOP). He cautiously got out of his patrol car and approached the man. The man immediately pulled out a sawed-off shotgun from under his coat and pointed it at Sgt. Kelly’s head. He pulled the trigger. He had forgotten to take the safety off the gun. He tried again and again to pull the trigger until he was wrestled to the ground. Sgt. Kelly’s lieutenant reported, “God intervened — it was not Kelly’s time.”
Sgt. Kelly’s stature was often commented upon. One retired SBPD captain remembers meeting Kelly during the interview stage — a memorable first impression. “It was January 1974. I was to undergo my final processing. I was sitting outside the sergeant’s office who was going to interview me. I was wearing a borrowed sports coat, which was too big for me. I was very excited and proud to have made it through the testing and to be on the verge of being sworn in, when the door opened and out walked the biggest human being I had ever seen — Motor Sergeant Merlyn Kelly, complete in Class A motor officer uniform with boots and Sam Browne belt gleaming. I clearly remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, it’s clear that I’m not big enough to do this job. I might as well leave now.’ As a true measure of just who Sgt. Kelly was, he walked over, introduced himself, and welcomed me to the department, thus beginning years of his friendship, leadership, counsel, and mentoring. I have never forgotten that moment — or the man.”
Sgt. Kelly’s police career epitomized the ideal public servant, one whose courage is equaled by his compassion. He was recognized by The Santa Barbara Independent‘s Local Hero Award in 1991 for his community service. Twice a week for years he volunteered with the Adult Literacy Program at the public library, helping adults to read. Once a month for over 25 years, he was a blood donor. Numerous years were spent at public schools, talking to children about police work. Sgt. Kelly was Santa Claus in the State Street parade float for many years and at the Lighting of the Tree at Carrillo and Chapala streets, as well as being Santa at children’s parties. Kelly loved to cook, and he and his wife, Jo Anne, opened their home at Christmas and Thanksgiving for officers who were on duty to stop by and enjoy a home-cooked meal.
After Sgt. Kelly retired, Chief Cam Sanchez asked him to come back to the SBPD as Chaplain. He was very grateful to have served four years in that capacity, ministering to both the community and the SBPD officers when needed. He also officiated at many police officers’ weddings. He was president of his beloved congregation at Emanuel Lutheran Church. He ministered to people who were ill or needed encouragement by giving them a stuffed bear to hug and remember they were loved. Sgt. Kelly began his career carrying a gun; he ended it carrying a Bible. He deeply loved God. “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).
His very last words on Earth, before he went to be with Jesus in Heaven, were: “I want to be with Michael the Archangel fighting against evil.” Once a police officer … always a police officer.
Kelly is greatly missed by his wife of 38 years, Jo Anne, and his sons, T.J.(Greta) and Erik (Mona), grandson Adam, family, friends, and colleagues in law enforcement.
Jo Anne Kelly thanks the many members of the Santa Barbara Police Department for contributing their remembrances and stories.