The Eulogy for John Robert “Bob’ Keller
(July 31, 1952 – December 21, 2019)
Bob Keller was born on July 31, 1952 to Virginia and Larry Keller and grew up in the small, working class town of Turtle Creek (“Crick”), Pennsylvania, just twenty minutes outside of Pittsburg. His older brother, Larry, Jr. preceded Bob in birth by seven years and his younger sister, Elaine was born seven years after Bob. At the age of two Bob’s family moved into a row house that was home for the rest of Bob’s childhood. Up until Larry went off to college, Bob and his brother shared the third floor bedroom. A stone’s throw behind the house was a train track which meant the sound of a freight train rumbling past and the vibrations it caused in the boys’ bedroom became so routine that it was almost comforting. Larry’s train set was always set up around the tree at Christmastime. Consequently, Bob had a life-long love of trains and train sets.
Bob’s mother possessed a strong-willed personality with a dose of stubbornness, traits you will probably recognize as having been passed on to her similarly strong-willed son. As you can imagine their personalities clashed at times. At a young age Bob liked to wander off in the company of his brother and Larry’s significantly older friends, a habit his mother tried to break in the often told story of the time she tied young Bob to the back porch.
Another story that is told is of the time of the time the family made a trip to Loray Caverns when Bob was no older than seven. The family was in the inner sanctum of the cave as a part of a guided tour when suddenly the lights went out, startling everybody with the experience of total darkness, followed immediately by Bob’s delighted, self-satisfied voice singing, “I turned out the lights!” Apparently the child had no fear of the darkness.
Another strong personality also lived in the family home throughout Bob’s childhood and that was his grandmother Mary on his father’s side, a hard working woman who managed to raise her son as a single mother. From the stories I am told she was something of a pistol, of which I’ll have more to say later.
In spite of the occasional domestic clash of personalities, the small town life Bob knew growing up with his family was stable and pretty idyllic — classic Americana. Turtle Crick was the sort of long lost place where a boy could get on his bike and ride downtown by himself without reason to fear. People mostly knew one another so there were always neighborly eyes watching over the goings-on around town. At Christmastime the store windows were decorated and families would wander about gazing at the glittering displays.
Bob’s lifelong love of dogs and other animals dates back to the puppy his brother brought home when Bob was just four. Named “Beauty” this sweet dog lived to be nineteen which meant he was Bob’s constant comfort and companion through the travails of growing up, as well as Bob’s responsibility to care for after his brother went off to college. Bob’s family attended the local Presbyterian Church every Sunday where Bob went through Sunday school and confirmation, later singing in the choir.
Bob’s Dad was a forty-five year member of the local Fire Department, serving for many years as the assistant Fire Chief. It was in that capacity that he acquired the nickname of “Sparky.” In his Dad’s company growing up Bob spent a lot of time at the fire station growing up, as well as accompanying his Dad out on calls to put out fires. Along the way Bob absorbed both his father’s enthusiasm for being a fireman and his commitment to public service.
Bob’s Dad spent his entire adult work life employed by the local Westinghouse Air Breaks Factory — that is until the chronic rheumatoid arthritis he struggled with forced him into early retirement. Setting a model that would be repeated later in Bob’s own life, Sparky persevered in retirement with his service to the Fire Department. His father was also involved in the Masons which led Bob and his brother Larry to spend years as a part of their youth service program known as Demolay.
Although Bob could probably trace his own strong will to his mother, in the estimation of Bob’s brother Larry and his wife Connie it was his Dad who had the greatest influence in shaping the life Bob would live. Unlike his mother whose strong personality could fill up a room (a capacity Bob was also known to possess) Bob’s Dad tended to be more on the quiet side. Revered for his wisdom, Sparky is remembered as somebody less inclined towards boisterous crowds, preferring instead the intimacy of one-on-one conversations in which the person he was talking to could experience his full attention. Those of us who had to opportunity to engage Bob in this manner can recognize the same quality.
Never having much interest in sports, Bob found other ways to carve out a place of belonging in high school. He served as the manager of the football team which included the job of firing the canon at half time. Bob played trumpet in the band and with a strong singing voice landed the lead of Sky Masterdon in the musical Guys and Dolls. Outside of school Bob worked part time at the local funeral home, appreciating the atmosphere of dignity and reverence the place cultivated.
In Bob’s senior year he found himself in an elective Journalism class with a cute junior girl named Connie. Bob had access to his father’s car, driving him to work in the morning and then picking him up after school. On a particularly snowy day – January 12, 1970 – Connie took the initiative to ask Bob for a ride home, a favor Bob was all too willing to provide. As I’m sure you know, Connie was never a delicate, damsel-in-distress sort of girl and so it was with great amusement that her mother watched the gallant young Bob Keller carrying Connie’s books and leading her gently down the snowy driveway lest she slip and take a tumble. Nonetheless his gallantry made an impression.
That day came to be known as “Red Mitten Day” — the fiftieth anniversary of which happens to be tomorrow — because Connie’s red mittens somehow got left in Bob’s car. Whether this was intentional or unintentional is shrouded in some mystery. Bob promptly noticed the mittens when he returned to his car, but rather than return to Connie’s door to give her the mittens, Bob chose to hold onto them to the following day providing him with a convenient excuse to approach the young lady with whom he was finding himself growing quite smitten. And when he did, Connie took note of the fact that the weather continued to be quite challenging and that another ride home would be most appreciated, a request Bob only to happy to oblige.
Connie’s mother had set down a rule that she could not date a boy until she turned sixteen, which at this point in our story was the age Connie had recently attained. But her mother had laid down a further rule which was that Connie had to date twelve different boys before she was allowed to the parlance of the day “go steady.” Connie worked at a soda fountain and with her delightful, outgoing personality there were no shortage of boys interested in pursuing her. Bob was the tenth boy to ask Connie out on a date, and it didn’t take long for both of them to realize that something very special was blossoming between them. Apparently Connie’s mother relented in regard to the requirement that she go out on a full twelve separate dates before settling down. In short order, Bob and Connie were “going steady”, a bond that would persist through the next fifty years.
As you recall Bob lived in a home with two women with strong personalities, and when he began bringing his new girlfriend by the house to get to know the family he warned her beforehand to “act like a lady” for fear of the fire she could anticipate being showered down upon her if she wasn’t properly demur. But Connie had a strength of will equal to that of the two women of the household, and she wasn’t about to pretend to be somebody she wasn’t. So upon arriving in their home, to the dismay of Bob’s grandmother in particular Connie comfortably plopped herself down on the floor, a behavior Bob’s grandmother found most un-lady like. And when Connie called on the phone for Bob at an hour that her grandmother deemed inappropriately late, she would refer to Connie as “that Hussie!” But Connie wasn’t about to be deterred from expressing her affection for Bob in whom she increasingly felt a connection to last a lifetime.
After graduation Bob went off to a college just an hour away to the misleadingly named “California State University” in nearby California, Pennsylvania where Bob studied communications. It won’t be surprising to you to hear that he joined the debating team and won prizes for interpretive reading.
After another year of high school Connie attended Community College. They carried on a long distance relationship, albeit with permission granted by both parties to explore the appeal of other possible dating partners because both Connie and Bob were quite aware that it was a life-long commitment to one another they were contemplating and they wanted to be confident that they had in fact found the “right” persons. Sure enough, neither Bob nor Connie could find anyone for whom they felt anything remotely resembling the attraction they felt for each other.
In the Fall of his Senior year Bob proposed to Connie sitting on the rather unromantic setting of the bleachers at his college. He was too poor to give her a ring, but Connie nonetheless gladly accepted. Bob graduated a semester early in January. He had been working part time at a local radio station as an afternoon drive disk jockey, and upon graduation he was offered a full time radio job with the company down in Jacksonville, Florida.
The plan Bob and Connie came up with was for Bob to move to Jacksonville alone to begin his job, returning in June for their wedding, at which point Connie would join him in Florida. But Bob found living without Connie close at hand unbearable, so the date of the wedding was moved up to March.
The day before the wedding, Bob was informed he was being transferred back to the local Pennsylvania radio station which added a dose of confusion into the mix, because they had to scramble to find a place to begin their married life together.
Although being a disk jockey was fun, it didn’t provide much money to live on.
Consequently, eight months after the wedding when a job possibility suddenly arose with Proctor and Gamble in the midst of a visit with a friend in Baltimore who happened to be a recruiter Bob was willing to fly directly to New Jersey for an interview, which was followed by a second interview with both Connie back in Pennsylvania. A job was offered as a salesman in New Jersey which Bob accepted leading the newlyweds to take the great leap of faith of moving away from all that was familiar to them – the small town community in which they had lived their entire lives with all their family and friends.
Bob and Connie had recently adopted a much beloved dog named Daisy who they trained to do an abundance of tricks, so they found a dog-friendly apartment in Rockaway.
During this time Bob and Connie began attending small group Bible studies. Bob gave serious thought to attending seminary and going into the ministry.
But in short order, as a result of Bob’s sharp mind, his capacity for hard work, and his charismatic charm job opportunities were being presented to Bob in the lucrative oil industry. Bob and Connie moved to Parsippany and Bob began commuting every day into New York, putting in grueling twelve hour work days and making more money than the small town boy from Turtle Creek could ever have imagined. Thoughts of the ministry were left behind as Bob climbed the corporate ladder, eventually reaching the position of Executive Editor for Standard and Poor’s, traveling throughout the Northern Hemisphere to report news and pricing in the oil industry.
In the meantime, Connie’s singular vision for her life had always been to get married and start having babies, but for the first fourteen years of their marriage Connie was kept from carrying a child to term. Bob shared Connie’s dream of raising a family and her heartache over their inability to fulfill this dream.
In the meantime, however Bob was determined to live life with gusto, packing in as much fun as possible while they were still young and possessed the freedom to set out on adventures. Bob played nearly as hard as he worked. Together they traveled the world and went on cruises. They flew in hot air balloons. Bob’s sister Elaine remembers gratefully the generosity of Bob and Connie during this time as they took her and her husband on trips to Disney World and Bermuda.
During this period of their lives Bob adopted a philosophy of life that he summed up as “the one with the most toys when he dies wins.” It was a philosophy Bob would later turn away from, but to Bob’s credit he made sure he put his toys to good use, especially the RV and the boat both of which carried Bob and Connie far and wide on many a good time. They found friends with which to share their adventures, caravanning with other couples on countless exploratory trips.
Gradually Connie and Bob came to embrace the idea of adoption as God’s plan by which they would fulfill their longing for a family. Through Bob’s contacts at work they were put in contact with a pregnant woman in Venezuela who already had four children to feed and did not want the burden of yet another. Intuitively Connie knew that the child she was carrying was destined to be her son, and so it came to pass that Bob and Connie traveled all the way to Caracas in 1988 where they cradled in their arms for the first a five day old baby Jonathan. Now their enjoyment of life was focused in the delight their son Jonathan took in every new encounter with this beautiful world.
Seven years later after Jonathan’s adoption, Connie received a call from her aunt saying that her twenty month old grandson Michael was in need of a home. Without hesitation, Connie and Bob embraced the opportunity to welcome a second son into their family.
Early on in their marriage Bob had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, compelling him to spend the rest of his life giving himself endless finger pricks for blood sugar readings as well as frequent injections of insulin. The unrelenting stress of Bob’s super high-pressured job gradually took a toll on Bob’s health. The functioning of Bob’s kidneys declined and in 1997 Bob was forced to retire from his job, going on disability.
Being forced to give up his job led Bob into a spiritual crisis. His identity had always been shaped by his work. No longer in the work force Bob struggled with the question of “who am I if I no longer have a job?” As Bob grappled with this question, he began to recognize the shallowness of many of the aspirations that had motivated him in his work life. He embraced the role of stay-at-home Dad and began to shape a new life centered around the theme of service.
Just like his own Dad had done for him, Bob felt it was important to provide his sons with an example of commitment to service – commitment to one’s larger community. And so Bob set out to become deeply involved in his community. He joined the Kiwanis Club, the Parsippany Planning Board, both the Parsippany and the Morris County Democratic Party Committees, and the Lake Parsippany Fire Company, taking on significant responsibilities and leadership roles in each of these organizations. As was the case with Bob and his Dad, Jonathan and Michael would often tag along with their father on trips to the firehouse and out on calls.
Jonathan remembers the pride he felt in his Dad when Bob brought the Fire Prevention Program to his school each year – a terrific program that Bob was instrumental in helping to develop.
Twenty three years ago Bob and Connie happened to attend a dinner our church was hosting. Bob was running for Town Council and that’s what politicians do – they show up places to shake a lot of hands in hopes of getting votes. (Side note: Bob would end up running for Town Council five separate times, losing each time, because he ran before the day when a Democrat could get elected to Council in Parsippany. His perseverance, however would help pave the way for those who would follow him down that path.) Bob and Connie sensed something about our faith community that led them to believe they could find a spiritual home here. Before long they were the sort of people you could always count on seeing on Sunday morning. In 1998 Bob and Connie took the vows of members and as time passed they found a variety of ways to serve here. Bob became our “Lay Leader” as well as a “Lay Servant Minister”, assisting in worship leadership and preaching on Sundays when I was away on vacation. His resonant voice reading the Scriptures became for many the very voice of God.
I was privileged to officiate at a renewal of their vows ceremony on the occasion of Bob and Connie’s 25th wedding anniversary. Those Kellers — they knew how to throw a good party! On a more modest budget, the Kellers continued after Bob’s retirement to know how to have fun – how to get away and relax. With their sons they put that RV to good use travelling to NASCAR races. In recent years they hooked up with Bob’s brother Larry at campgrounds. Together they took in the bourbon trail in Kentucky – something that always been on Bob’s “bucket list.” Bob and Larry couldn’t agree on much in regard to Bob’s passionately held political views, but that didn’t keep them from loving each other and enjoying each other’s company. And that’s an example for all of us in this divided land of ours.
As the years passed it became increasingly clear to Bob that many of the things he had once thought important – money and prestige, for instance – really weren’t very important after all. What mattered, Bob now realized, was being a servant – doing whatever he could to help others and make a difference in this world. Bob told me a story once about a young man connected with the Fire Department who had taken the time to express his gratitude to Bob regarding the positive influence he had made in the course his life had taken. The young man’s words had touched Bob deeply. (Side note: take the time to tell people how much you appreciate them. It’s so easy to do and it means so much.) There were times earlier in Bob’s life when he often dined in elegant restaurants at banquet tables in the company of the movers and shakers of the oil industry. They had been pretty heady times for Bob. But listening to Bob talk about how much it meant for him to hear the young man testify to the difference his life made for him, it was clear memories of fine dining with the upper crust paled in comparison. There are countless others who feel a similar gratitude for Bob.
Bob often talked with me about how as much as he grieved the loss of his health that had forced him into an early retirement, he doubts he would have come to see what really matters in life without having had the experience of being brought low in this way. He was beginning to see life with new eyes – the eyes, I would suggest, of Jesus. Bob became increasingly concerned with the plight of people he hadn’t given a whole lot of thought to before – people, for instance struggling to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads. People rejected by their families and their churches for their sexual orientation. Bob came to see that the banquet table that really matters is the Lord’s table, and at that table all are welcome and all are cared for.
And we were all moved and inspired by the extraordinary love Connie and Bob had for one another – the way they walked hand in hand together in trust of God facing the challenges life threw at them. When seventeen years ago Bob’s kidneys failed Bob found dialysis to be for himself almost unbearable. When it was determined that Connie’s kidneys were a match for Bob, we prayed for them as they prepared to enter the hospital to take a kidney from the body of Connie and attach it to that of Bob’s. And we rejoiced with them as the operation was a total success giving Bob a new lease on life. From that point onward they were quite literally one flesh.
Bob spoke often of the spiritual lessons derived from this time of trial and ultimate triumph. The serenity prayer says it well: “God grant me the serenity to accept that which I cannot change.” It was during this time that Bob begin to embrace a concept Connie introduced him to, that they had to “Let God drive the bus.” It was the recognition that in life there is a great deal over which we simply don’t have any control, and that peace of mind can only be found in willingly handing the driver’s wheel over to God, trusting that God will lead us where we need to go.
Bob had always been more comfortable in the role of the helper than in that of the one being helped. During this experience he began to learn how follow the leadings of God’s Spirit to let go of his pride and receive the help of others.
The serenity prayer speaks of asking God to help us accept that which we cannot change, but it also goes on to ask God for “the courage to change that which I can change.”
For many of us we’d be hard pressed to find somebody who exemplified the quality of courage more than Bob. His physical challenges were more extensive than most people knew. Bathed in a great deal of prayer and loving support, Bob successfully fought and overcame lung cancer.
Nonetheless, Bob lived with chronic emphysema, leaving him easily out of breath.
His diabetes meant that his blood sugar levels were constantly fluctuating, which in turn would lead to mood swings. As most of us know, Bob had something of a temper, and sometimes he lost it when unbeknownst to those of us interacting with him his blood sugar level had flown out of whack.
Kidney disease gradually took away Bob’s eyesight leaving him unable to drive. He was scheduled for a cornea transplant when he died. Bob suffered from neuropathy in his feet and legs, and for the last portion of his life Bob was numb from the knees down. I never saw Bob fall once, but it’s a marvel he wasn’t continually falling down. There were also concerns regarding his heart, but these tended to get short shrift because of the other more pressing physical threats with which he routinely lived.
With so much to deal with, most of us can imagine ourselves being tempted to crawl into the fetal position and just giving up, and although there were times when such feelings could roll over Bob, he never did give up. His will to live was extraordinary. His perseverance was awe-inspiring.
He joked about having a Time Share at Saint Barnabas having recorded so many stays there. In truth though he hated being in the hospital. One of the challenges of hospital stays was that hospitals tend to induce people into a state of passivity in which they follow unquestioningly the directives of doctors. Bob was determined to be a full participant in making decisions regarding his treatment. To this end, Bob educated himself regarding his various diseases. Invariably, the treatments doctors prescribed had repercussions in dimensions of his health that was beyond their specialties. Frequently the doctors didn’t communicate with each other, and often it was Bob who knew the most about the delicate balancing act required in his treatment. Sometimes Bob’s passionate strong will came in conflict with that of his doctors.
One thing Bob understood that his doctors didn’t always appreciate was that his extraordinary will to live that repeatedly brought him back from the brink when his doctors were ready to count him out – this will to live was directly related to the powerful calling Bob felt to continue to make a positive difference in his community. What was unbearable to Bob about the idea of going on dialysis was that in his mind it conjured up the intolerable image of somebody wrapped in an afghan locked in his home all day watching television. His passion for life wasn’t ready to go there.
And so year after year — in spite of being a night owl — Bob kept getting out of bed early every Tuesday and Thursday to head down to the Empire Diner for breakfast with Methodist Men and Kiwanians. He needed to stay connected to people – to life.
There were so many things he found to devote himself to. There were fundraisers such as Touch-a-Truck – his personal vision – to organize to raise money for various worthy causes, such as the Sharing Network and Camp Nejeda for children living with diabetes. There were dinners to put on, and political causes to support, and dogs to pet and to advocate for. There were our Friday afternoon men’s discussion group to attend in which we argued over how to solve the problems of the world. There was Santa to play at Christmastime for children.. There were sermons to write and deliver to young and old alike. They were parades to attend and planning board meetings to preside over — his final one taking place just five days before he died – an absolutely astonishing act of courage.
Through it all Connie was there by his side, driving Bob to all his doctors’ appointments and keeping track of his multitude of medications and sharing in the battle with the healthcare establishment.They were extraordinary team together, and Bob would never have made it as far as he did nor have the same impact on his community without Connie’s remarkable faith, hope and love at his side.
Connie, on behalf of your church family and your community, I want to thank you for loving Bob so well.
Bob’s sons have carried on their fathers’ legacy of commitment to service; Michael as a soldier serving his country, and Jonathan as a firefighter. He was so proud of both of you.
I asked Jonathan what came to mind when he thought of his Dad, and he responded with tears in his eyes by describing his father as a “beacon of light.” He touched so many lives.
A couple of months ago when Bob’s declining health seemed to be closing door after door for Bob, he asked if I would invite people to pray over him following our Sunday worship service. It was an indication regarding how far Bob had come in his willingness to reach out for help – to acknowledge how rough the road he travelled could be.
I extended the invitation to the congregation – saying we’d gather together on the altar in about ten minutes after the benediction.
Pretty much the whole congregation hung around as we sat Bob down in a chair facing the cross and laid our hands upon him, offering ourselves as vessels through which God could pour out God’s loving Spirit to bless our beloved Bob. His heart wide open, Bob wept openly – tears of joy. He told me afterwards that he had felt enveloped in a love to carry him through whatever darkness lay ahead.
On the night before Jesus died, he said to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you.” I was struck by the story of Bob and Connie travelling all the way from New Jersey to Caracas, Venezuela so that a little baby boy need not be left orphaned. They came for him, and here Jonathan is now, and here we all are. And the gracious one did not leave Bob orphaned, he has taken Bob to that place where he is and is far more beautiful than we have the capacity to imagine.
So what I would hope we could come away with this morning is encouragement to live out the lessons Bob learned in the course of this journey – that love really is the thing. We were created out of love in order to give and receive love – and in the end nothing else lasts except love and nothing else matters. And in the end we are received into a wondrous love.
So in the meantime, let us find the courage to use our gifts be a servant in the manner in which Bob used his gifts, for that is the reason for which we were born.