Imagine one million letters, faxes, and e-mails flooding your office every month. Now imagine that absolutely none of it is for you.
While such an outrageous amount of mail is hard to fathom, it is a reality for Michael Kelleher ’89. As the director of the White House Office of Correspondence, he has the daunting task of selecting only 10 letters a day for President Barack Obama to read.
The only thing more fascinating than how Kelleher can do such a job is the way he came to it, considering he was a music major when he enrolled at Illinois State. He made the change to political science when he started seriously reading the newspaper.
“I became more interested in what was happening around our state, and around the country. The more I read, the more I wanted to be involved,” Kelleher said. “At first I thought I wanted to be involved through reporting. I worked at The Daily Vidette for two years, and worked as a reporter before joining the Peace Corps.”
It was through the Peace Corps that Kelleher spent three years in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He served in small villages around the regional capital, teaching locals about community health. He built latrines and worked on local vaccination projects, which proved difficult because it was hard to convince mothers that vaccinations are good for their children. He spent time organizing workshops with teachers, reinforcing health concepts by using drama to teach almost entire villages how to make an oral rehydration solution.
“They say the Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love, and that was true for me,” Kelleher said. “I wanted to be of service, and it was a special experience. The people of Sierra Leone are extraordinary people. The level of challenges they face getting up every morning is staggering. The fact they survive and thrive is more than a miracle.”
After spending three months traveling West Africa, Kelleher returned to the states. He headed to the nation’s capital in 1989. For six months he worked for Sen. Max Baucus, then moved to the House side to work three years for Rep. Marty Russo.
After attending graduate school at American University, Kelleher found his way back to Illinois and started working for Dawn Netsch’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign. He joined the teaching staff at Heartland Community College in Normal before returning to Illinois State. He was director of the University’s Stevenson Center from 1997 to 2003. During that time he sought a congressional seat, but did not win the 2000 election.
“If you think about service as a continuum in your life, running for Congress is a way to be of service. I felt strongly it was a calling, and something I needed to do,” Kelleher said. “And although I didn’t win, I learned a lot of great lessons that help me in other service opportunities.”
It was while running for office that Kelleher met Obama. “We were both running for Congress. He lost his primary and I won mine. I continued to run for Congress, and later for Lieutenant Governor. I went to talk to him and asked for his support. When he ran for the U.S. Senate he came to Bloomington, and I gave him my support. That’s how we got to know one another,” Kelleher explained.
He eventually joined Obama’s Senate staff, but not before moving overseas to the Republic of Georgia. Kelleher spent time there as the director of the National Democratic Institute. His wife, Karin (Howells) ’83, whom he met in a music theory class his freshman year, joined him overseas. Their daughters—Katrina, Carol, and Anna—were part of the international adventure as well.
“In Georgia you can see the lingering effects of the Soviet Union structure and culture. It has been an independent nation since 1991, but the mistrust people have for their government and the way that people look at the function of government is totally different,” Kelleher said. “When we say the word ‘democracy’ and they say the word ‘democracy,’ the images in your head are totally different. It’s a completely different structure.”
He concentrated on training members of parliament, nongovernmental organizations, and women’s groups in institutional and political democratic practice.
“There was a strong discouragement of women in politics. We wanted to make sure that women who were interested in being in politics felt like they had enough information to make good decisions, and be effective candidates for office,” Kelleher said. He noted that the work was made more difficult by the fact “there is a tremendous amount of corruption there. It’s just the way of life. You have to face it, and pick your fights.”
After one year Kelleher was offered a job as the director of outreach in Obama’s Chicago Senate office. The opportunity emerged over coffee with Obama’s chief of staff at the time. Kelleher had a small Chicago-based staff that was in constant communication with mayors, county boards, chambers of commerce, hospitals, and churches.
“We have as many as 100 volunteers a day who come in and help us. We have a staff of 50, and we just took on 40 interns.”
“We wanted to stay involved with communities around the state, learn as much as we could, and really make sure the Senator was aware of what was happening.”
In July of 2008 Kelleher once again moved to Washington, D.C. This time he worked as the director of economic development in Obama’s Senate office until it was closed. During the presidential transition period, he was at the U.S. Department of Commerce, until taking on the White House correspondence director’s responsibilities in January of 2009.
“I got the job because someone asked me. I didn’t even know it existed. I didn’t know what the person did. I had to learn all that,” Kelleher said. What he brought to the job is a determination to make certain every fax, letter, and e-mail sent to the president is read by himself or a member of his staff.
“We have as many as 100 volunteers a day who come in and help us. We have a staff of 50, and we just took on 40 interns. Our job is to manage this paper and information flow, and make sure that people are hearing from their president,” Kelleher explained. “President Obama said he wanted to be accessible. He wants to listen to people and their views.”
Kelleher consequently passes along 10 letters a day for Obama to personally read, and write a response. Kelleher chooses letters that are representative of messages received every day; are representative of what is currently happening in the news; and are compelling messages that tell a story the president needs to hear.
“We get a lot of letters from people saying things are really bad for them,” Kelleher said. People write that they are sick, lost their job as a result of their illness, and lost health insurance. Others are facing foreclosure. That’s the kind of mail Kelleher makes certain the president reads everyday.
“They don’t say can you help me, but what they do say is can you help people like me. That’s why he’s engaged in working on housing issues and healthcare, and doing whatever he can with his advisors to fix the economic mess we’re in to provide some hope,” Kelleher said.
Through hours of labor and a commitment to let many voices speak as one, Kelleher has found a unique way to pursue his passion for public service. This time his calling is to be a conduit, one man strategically working behind the scenes so that others may be seen and heard.