Tom Brokaw’s literary works, beginning with his 1998 publication of The Greatest Generation brought focus to a group of men and women who, born in the 1920’s, came of age at time when the needs of others took priority over their own. Largely focusing on the World War II veterans, Brokaw’s book noted that these adults “stayed true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.”
Religion was central to everything they did. It was “a source of strength, not as a sign of superiority” Brokaw wrote. These qualities were not just limited to those who stormed the beaches of Normandy; it was true of everyone born in that era. And as I find myself attending more funerals of those men and women who lived - indeed flourished - through the hardships of the 30’s and 40’s, Brokaw’s observations seem more pertinent than ever.
And so on Friday, July 22, I found myself sitting in a crowded Catholic church in Casper, Wyoming. We were celebrating the life of one Marvin Keller – born on a farm in May, 1931 – his Stafford County homestead sat at the cross section of the dust bowl and tornado alley. His best friend and cousin lived a mile west across two quarter sections – Larry Keenan. Their loyalties were shaped serving as altar boys at Seward’s St. Francis Xavier church, enrolling at KU together, and serving in the Army (Keller, Germany, Keenan, Fort Riley). Included in their skill set was good timing – they were students at KU in March, 1952 when one of their classmates was a 6 foot 10 inch center named Clyde Edward Lovellette. He led KU to a National title.
Keller became a geologist and went to work for Conoco in Durango, Colorado; located in the southwest corner of Colorado, near the four-corners of Texas, Utah, and Arizona. Today known as a mountain biking haven, sixty years ago it was where the railroad ran and oil flowed.
And in 1958, Durango was nothing more than a brief stop on Keller’s adult journey to bigger things. All that changed, however, in September that year. Keller’s sport coat needed dry cleaning, and he dropped it off at the C.O.D. cleaners in Durango. When he picked it up, the owner, Helen Fleck came from the back and asked him a question.
“I think you left something in your coat pocket” she said. Her hand was extended. In its palm of her hand was a black rosary. Keller sheepishly retrieved it. And what Helen said next would change Marvin’s life forever: “You should meet my daughter Jerene.” He did, and Helen’s intuition proved spot on. Marvin and Jerene married, and three daughters followed.
And in the next fifty-one years, his faith served as a guidepost for countless judgment calls along the road of life. And, rather consistently, those decisions were met with success. Keller left Conoco, with a handful of other geologists started his own oil company, Rainbow Resources, and soon their successes made it an attractive acquisition target. They were bought by the Williams Company in 1977, and more ventures came their way. Our families intersected often; typically meeting in Vail during the ski season – where Marvin taught the five Keenan kids how to navigate the mountain: “weight on the downhill ski!” he would say, and if necessary yell, as we tumbled. Many years later, when our four children learned to ski some of those same slopes at Vail, I took a photograph of them on the mountain and sent it to Marvin “your technique has been imparted to the next generation” I said.
At the eulogy, remarks prepared by his daughters noted that “Dad had just a few priorities. God, family, friends, and giving back to others.” At the service, the priest remarked that even recently, Marvin could be seen in the back of church, clutching that rosary, listening, evaluating and then re-evaluating his priorities.
A lifetime dedicated to responsibility, duty, honor, faith and family.
Marvin Keller, RIP.