Sometimes mysteries don’t have the happy endings we hope for, though we may find closure in learning the outcome.

Such is the case with Waterville native Robert Kelley, who died alone last month in a hotel room in rural Rugby, North Dakota. He was 77. In his possession were only his clothes and a wallet containing his birth certificate from Sister’s Hospital in Waterville and identification, food stamp and electronic benefit transfer cards.

Pierce County, North Dakota, coroner Dustin Hager scoured the internet, contacted the Maine Department of Vital Records, social services, Medicaid and other programs to try to find relatives so he could notify Kelley’s next of kin, but his search came up empty.

After exhausting all avenues, he called me to see if I could help spread awareness of his efforts to find family members of Kelley, whom he learned had arrived by train April 22 in Rugby, a small farming community. Kelley had moved into a hotel and was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer at Heart of America Medical Center, where Hager also is chief operating officer.

Robert Kelley Courtesy photo

Kelley refused to stay at the hospital, telling health care workers there he wanted to die in the hotel, according to Hager. Kelley said he had been divorced twice and had a daughter and son whose last known addresses were in California and Maine, though he had not had contact with them in many years. In the medical papers Kelley filled out, he listed a woman named Carol, the housekeeper at the hotel where he was staying in Rugby, as his emergency contact. Carol had helped feed him and changed his linens, and she was the person who found him dead around 5 a.m. on Aug. 8, Hager said.

After I wrote a column about Hager’s search that appeared Aug. 12 in both the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal, I received several emails from people wanting to help find Kelley’s next of kin. One woman wrote that she posted the column on the Maine Genealogical Society’s website.


I forwarded all the emails I received to Hager, who also was communicating with the funeral home where Kelley’s remains were being held in North Dakota. Hager said the funeral home was obligated by local law to hold them for a certain period and if no one claimed them, they would be buried at the local cemetery.

Hager emailed me last week to say Kelley’s son and daughter had been identified, but the outcome was not the happy one for which people may have hoped.

We spoke by phone on Tuesday this week, with Hager telling me a woman who was tipped off to the newspaper column read it and called the funeral home where Kelley’s remains were and provided a phone number for Kelley’s son.

“The funeral director spoke to Robert’s son and it turns out they have been estranged for the majority of the son’s life,” Hager said. “While he was glad to know the fate of his father, he was really disinterested in any more than that.”

The son, he said, provided enough information to confirm Kelley was his father, but declined to give details about the reason for their estrangement. He agreed, however, that Kelley’s ashes should be spread locally, in Rugby.

“That was kind of the extent of it,” Hager said. “The funeral director said Kelley’s son was going to reach out to his sister to let her know about their father’s death.”


Hager said he didn’t know where the son or daughter live, but he was certain that, without help from the public and the newspapers in central Maine, they would not have been found.

“I truly believe getting the word out in the fashion we did helped us come to a solution in locating his family,” Hager said.

As he told me back in August, his job as coroner is to try to reunite a family with deceased loved ones. He seemed passionate about not letting Kelley be just another transient person who dies with no one to claim his remains. He acknowledged that his job is to notify family, and what they do with the information is up to them. Hager said he was grateful for all who helped make that possible.

“I feel better knowing that at least we were able to notify his family so they were aware of what happened to him and what his fate was,” he said.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 34 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to

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