At what seemed like the most inopportune times, Merrill Kelsay was there.
Joe Kelsay could almost count on that uncanny ability. Whether it was scheming to find some trouble as a kid or working through a troublesome problem on the family farm, his father seemed to show up to offer his guidance.
“At the time, we always thought the same thing — man, we can’t get away with anything,” Joe Kelsay said. “But that kind of omnipresence really was motivating and inspiring. It helped us keep on the straight and narrow in life. It let us know there were always people watching in life, and we needed to be thoughtful of our actions.”
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The quality of being connected and involved in the lives of his children, as well as many other people throughout the community, is what made Merrill Kelsay such a unique man.
Merrill Kelsay died Wednesday at the age of 67. He was an integral part of the agricultural fabric of Johnson County as well as an active member in many community organizations and civic groups.
Though he will be missed by family, friends and those who worked with him over the years, his legacy in Whiteland, throughout the county and around Indiana will carry on for years, Joe Kelsay said.
“One advantage to being such a long-term member of a community is a real appreciation of its history and its future. I think he saw himself as a responsibility to the past but as much so to the future. He had to find ways to connect people and build people. He had that sense of responsibility to how we participate in the process of the place and people we live around and make it better.”
The Kelsay farm is one of the oldest farms in the county still being operated by the same family that founded it. President Martin Van Buren had issued a land grant for the farm in 1837, and the Kelsays have worked the land ever since.
The seventh generation of Kelsays are now growing up on the dairy operation. Merrill Kelsay’s sons, Joe and Russ, as well as their own families had returned to the farm to carry on its agricultural tradition.
Over the years, Merrill Kelsay and his family owned grain elevators, a fertilizer distribution and a swine operation. Under his leadership, the dairy farm expanded to milk 500 Holstein cows. Computerized equipment was implemented to operate more efficiently, and unique techniques such as water beds for their herd made for healthier animals.
In addition to its dairy operation, the farm has also become a leader in local agritourism, hosting thousands of students on field trips and opening the farm to the public throughout the fall.
That time working together on the farm allowed Merrill Kelsay to have an impact on his family.
Every spring, the Kelsays could count on his particular tradition. As the planting season was finishing up, no matter what had happened, Merrill Kelsay would declare that it was the worst crop he had ever seen.
The family would joke about his negative mindset just as the year was starting. Almost every time, the crop turned out to be a success.
But it would prove to be a subtle lesson that Joe and Russ Kelsay picked up on.
“His approach was that we could do better, we could always strive to do better. That’s been a big motivator in any of the activities I’ve been involved with in my life,” Joe Kelsay said.
Taking pride in the work you put your name on and striving to do your best were core principles that Merrill Kelsay instilled in his family.
One of his favorite lessons was recognizing the priorities in life and focusing on what was truly important, Joe Kelsay said.
He recalled a time when they had a farm emergency. Even though he was only a teenager, he was expected to be out there with the family to help.
Joe Kelsay knew that he had an FFA meeting that night. But with the urgency of the work, he decided to skip it.
All of the sudden, his father stopped. “Don’t you have a meeting tonight?” he asked. When Joe Kelsay said he wasn’t going, Merrill Kelsay wasn’t having it.
“He told me, ‘At your age, in this time in your life, it’s important that you do those things. So you go home and go to your meeting,’” Joe Kelsay said. “I couldn’t believe that he told me to do that. But that perspective stuck with me.”
Kelsay was recognized multiple times for his contributions and dedication to the field of agriculture. In 1970, he became Indiana’s first FFA Star Farmer of America, an honor recognizing the best young farmer in the country. That same year, he received the Distinguished Hoosier Award from the state for his dedication to farming.
Gov. Joseph Kernan presented him with the Sagamore of the Wabash honor in 2005, the highest civilian award given in the state.
In dealing with other people, Merrill Kelsay was always very gracious, said Perry Anderson, a pastor at Greenwood Christian Church. Anderson had met the Kelsay family through the church. Debi Kelsay, Merrill’s wife, had worked on the staff of Greenwood Christian Church for many years.
“Merrill was always very down-to-earth. He was an extremely hard worker, and he obviously loved his family,” Anderson said. “He held many important positions in the dairy industry, but you’d never know that from talking to him; he was very humble and hardworking.”
As part of his responsibilities as a farmer, Merrill Kelsay was a tireless advocate for agriculture and the Indiana dairy industry.
He was a board member of the American Dairy Association of Indiana and a founding board member of the Indiana Dairy Producers, a promotional and education group, in the late 1990s.
“Merrill was always involved. If there was an organization that dealt with the dairy industry, he’d take the time and effort to serve on its boards,” said Doug Leman, the executive director of the Indiana Dairy Producers.
Leman had known Kelsay in an official capacity for more than 15 years. A former dairy farmer himself, Leman had often come to the Kelsay farm with questions or concerns about the business.
“There’s time when we were really struggling, and I’d know Merrill and his sons were there for me,” he said. “Merrill and I could relate so well to each other, we could encourage each other.”
Some of his best memories were just the times they would sit together in the farm’s office, chatting and catching up, before getting into deep conversation.
“Those best times was when I’d stop by the farm, and it was just Merrill and I. We’d get down into the weeds, talking on a personal level to what was really important,” Leman said. “That’s what I’ll really cherish. He’ll be missed.”
Debi Osza, general manager for the American Dairy Association of Indiana, met Merrill Kelsay when he joined the board in 2000. He provided great insight and knowledge about the workings of dairy farms and agriculture, Osza said.
Still, he could always be counted on to flash some of the wit that people came to expect from him.
“His knowledge was stellar, but his delivery of this insight was hilarious, often edgy and always on point,” Osza said. “When Merrill was speaking, you just couldn’t wait to hear what he’d say next.”