1.29.2005

A Family Tradition

Cache Valley Magazine - January/February 2005

Ask Jack Keller to talk about himself, and he tells a story about someone else.

Not a family member, although Jack's wife, children and grandchildren comprise one of the most involved families in the community. Not about a friend, although after forty-four years in Logan, he no doubt has many. Instead, he tells about an anonymous man walking down a road out of a small village.

Leaving town, the man passes a traveler. The traveler heading into town asks, "What's the village like that I'm going to?", because he has never been there before. The man asks about the traveler's former village, and the traveler complains about how awful it was. "Well, it's going to be awful in that village too," the man says, and continues to walk away from home. Then another man walking towards the village stops him. The second traveler also asks what the village will be like, and the man responds with the same question as he asked the first. "I come from a great place," says the second traveler. "The people were wonderful, and everything was good." "Oh," the man says, and smiles. "I think you're going to love that village."

Keller laughs a little at the finish of the story, and a twinkle in his eye tells you he's told it before. "See, it's really about what you make of it," says Keller. "That's what we said. Where you are is what you make of it. It's up to you."
———
Four the past four decades, Jack Keller's family has been in Logan; and the growing resume three generations of Kellers have produced shows what they have made of that time.

One or more family members have had a hand in everything from leadership at the Stokes Nature Center to local drives for the United Way. There are Keller fingerprints on an environmental club at Logan High School, the Cache Community Connections group that unites valley churches, the Whittier Center, a ten-year old alternative gift market and now a local Ten Thousand Villages store. Involvement has ranged far from northern Utah, to a Peace Corps outpost in west Africa, a group of women in Guatemala who started their own business, and now farmers in India looking for a better way to irrigate crops.

Last fall, those efforts were recognized with a citizen activist award that was presented to the entire family — including Jack and his wife Sally; their son Jeff and his son Ian; another son, Andy, and daughter-in-law Lauren Keller; and their daughter Judith and her husband Nelson Cronyn.

"The name 'Keller' kept resurfacing in every discussion of community service," said Cindy Roberts, an organizer of the Bioneers Conference were the award was given. "The values of stewardship have passed down through the (Keller) family."

But the Keller impact on Cache Valley since Jack and Sally moved to Logan with their two young sons in 1960 can't be measured in public accolades or charitable donations they politely decline to elaborate on.

It's measured in fondly-remembered relationships with "mentors" like Al and Alice Stokes. Or by the dozens of international university students that spent holidays in the Keller home over the years. The best way to understand where this family comes from might be a very simple explanation — and one that a few Kellers said had never occurred to them before they were asked the question "why?"

"The reality is, it's just bloody fun," says Jeff, 46, the second of Jack and Sally's three children during an evening interview in the empty Ten Thousand Villages store in Logan. "It's fun. When its all said and done, it's just a kick in the pants."
———

December found Kellers spread far from Logan, and each other — Jack in India, Sally with Judith, Nelson, and their three children in Africa, Jeff in Taiwan and Ian in Portland, Ore., where he's a freshman at Reed College. Although the family is quick to cooperate, learns from each other and obviously shares a close bond, the independence those travels suggest has also been characteristic of their various involvements.

Jack travels alone on many of the trips he takes as part of International Development Enterprises, an organization that engineers irrigation technology in developing countries. Judith and Nelson moved away from their family over a decade ago, and reopened a Peace Corps office in the West African country of Chad last year, where Nelson now serves as director. Sally recently brought a Ten Thousand Villages store to Logan to sell hand-made goods from around the world and send the proceeds directly back to the individual artisans. Though she accepts help from Jeff and Andy with the shop, there's no question who is in charge when a shift needs to be filled at the last minute, the books need to be balanced late in the evening, or extra product needs to be taken home for storage.

"We all see ourselves as doing our own thing," says Andy, 49, who joined his father with IDE, to use his expertise as an irrigation systems engineer in other countries. "While we're proud to be part of the family, we're happy with our contributions in our own right. I would do IDE whether dad was involved or not."

"It's not like a family that's got a project," says Jack. "Everybody is all over the place, doing whatever comes to their mind."

Perhaps the individuality doesn't surprise Jack because it was he, by leaving on business a day after arriving in Grenada, Miss. with Sally and six-month old Andy fifty years ago, who unintentionally planted that seed.

"That sort of started a pattern of what our marriage was going to be like," said Sally, 72. "He was out working, doing things, and it was my responsibility to be active in the community, to be a good citizen."

It was the role her father had played when Sally was growing up, and a role Jack was familiar with after watching his mother fight for integration in Memphis, Tenn. before the civil right's movement took hold. When the young family moved to Logan the attitude was fostered by needs in the community, and subtly passed to the next generation.

Andy, Jeff and Judith grew up without a television set, and voted against the purchase each time their parents offered the choice. Judith was used to sitting through planning commission meetings and knew the names of Logan city commissioners before she entered preschool. Each Halloween, the kids would be sent door to door a few days early, but not to get a jump on candy.

"My parents pushed me out the door to trick or treat for UNICEF. And I could hardly say the word, and couldn't even remember diphtheria, or these other things," said Jeff. "But I'm trick or treating for UNICEF, and we'd do this before Halloween, and people would slam the door and say, 'It's not Halloween yet.' I'd go around and do that every day after school for a week."

Not surprisingly, the next generation of Kellers has picked up the same spirit. Two years ago, Ian and cousins Malayna and Erika collected 50 soccer balls and brought them to children in Burkina Faso. Jeff's daughter Maria used Halloween as a platform for her political views this fall, five years before she'll be eligible to vote. When Ian and friends took notice of Cache Valley's poor air quality last winter, the environmental club they started — called LEAF — organized a "Green Thursday" event to reward Logan High School students for carpooling. Now, he's thinking about careers in think tanks or developing countries — and knows exactly where that idea comes from. "Taking aspects of the lives of my relatives helps me dream up my own life," said Ian.

But the dream isn't just of a cooperative, productive family. A bit reluctant to speak about themselves at times, the Kellers enthusiastically open up when asked about improving local air quality, giving to third-world countries, and taking care of resources both locally and worldwide. "It's a love for humanity, a caring for humanity," says Andy during an interview at his Logan home that sits right next door to his parents. "Providing for the poorest of the poor."

Like the people in Chad, a country that went through so much unrest in the late 1990s that the Peace Corps office had to be closed. Judith and Nelson, both Utah State University grads, moved from Burkina Faso to Chad in April 2003 to restart the program, and live in a climate where Judith describes poverty as "in your face" every day. Jack and Andy also work in African countries like Ethiopia, Niger, and Zambia through the IDE, and work with farmers to increase their earnings past the $1 per day that is typical. Earlier this spring, Jack even postponed a hip replacement surgery to finish a trip through Zambia, where he needed cortisone shots to stay on his feet.

"It's not easy to do, and he puts himself through considerable discomfort to do what he does. He doesn't ever acknowledge what it's like to do what he does," said Andy. "He didn't let that stop him from doing what was helpful."
———
That Jack still works at age 76 isn't remarkable. That he could still work at 57 was.

Body-surfing off the coast of Morocco in June 1985, Jack crashed and broke his neck. He was rushed back to the United States, fitted with a halo he wore for seven months and left scars on his forehead that are still visible today.

After the halo was set, the doctor held his thumb and forefinger an inch apart and said: "You came this close to being dead, or paralyzed." Jack, the son of a man who, as Jeff remembers, was optimistic "to annoyance," had a simply reply. "I also," said Jack, "came that close to not doing any of it at all."

Just like bodysurfing, there aren't many opportunities the Kellers have let pass. From Lauren's leadership with the Citizens to Protect Logan Canyon group and the Stokes Nature Center to Jeff's leadership in the Quality Utah Air Committee to Judith turning a visit from a Peace Corps recruiter her junior year of college into a life-changing decision, opportunities have always been jumped at rather than waited on.

"I've never felt that there was an issue of whether or not to be involved, but rather what to be involved in," said Judith via email from Chad.

"I guess when you get down to it, it's not much written and not much said," said Jack, a peaceful man that looks in your eye when he speaks to you, stares at his wife when she speaks, and looks at the ground when others speak about him. "It's just people that live a certain way. Its not very in your face, and not very obvious. And we don't even think about it."

Jeff definitely wasn't thinking about it last winter, when, as he remembers, he was frustrated with life in Logan. Bothered by the poor air quality in town during the winter inversion, and frustrated because he perceived that few people cared about making a difference in the local problem, he remembered a simple lesson his mother had taught him years before. He decided to get involved, and has watched people from bureaucrats to elementary school students somehow pick up an old piece of family advice: "The Keller family tradition, as well as my mom's side of the family," said Jeff, "is, It's up to you."

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