The Keeler patriarch, gone at 94, lived a good life

  • Duane and Norma Keeler Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/9/2020 4:31:14 PM

Jake Keeler said his late grandfather, Duane Keeler, led a charmed life.

Jeff Keeler, Duane’s son, agreed.

In fact, one might say that Duane’s vast experiences and good luck cushioned the blow after the patriarch of the Keeler family’s well-known real estate agency died on Oct. 4, at the age of 94.

“There’s always going to be a mix of sadness,” said Jeff Keeler, who sold the business last year and remains there as a salesman. “The sadness is there, the sense of lost opportunity as far as spending time with him. But also, there’s a lot of people in the world who have not been given the chance to live the life he did and then the peace he had moving on.”

Jeff is one of eight sons born to Duane and Norma Keeler, his wife of 72 years. Asked what the cause of his father’s death was, Jeff said, “Too many birthdays.”

Within those birthdays, however, a lot happened. Duane’s obit, written by Jeff, nearly burst at the seams as he tried to include all that his dad had accomplished.

“I couldn’t get them all in,” Jeff said.

The list is as long as the combined height of his eight boys, who once called their family basketball team 53 Feet of Keeler.

Duane served with the Seabees During World II, building bridges and clearing paths at a moment’s notice in the unforgiving territory called the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska. The Japanese were trying to gain a foothold there.

Duane was a natural Seabee. He could fix anything, his grandson said. In fact, Jake, who lives in Falmouth, Maine, is an architect, and guess who built the foundation for that career path.

“He definitely had an influence in different areas,” Jake said. “I have an old car and he could tell me how to work on it over the phone. His long-term memory near the end was very good.”

Jeff said his son had a special bond with Duane. Jake confirmed that.

“Everyone had a different relationship with grandpa, but what was important to me is that I learned a lot from him. If something was broken, he would spend hours taking it apart and learning how to fix it,” Jake said. “He had a mechanical mind and loved analyzing and figuring out how it worked.”

The GI Bill paid for his education at the Whittemore School of Business at the University of New Hampshire. Duane moved up the ranks at Blue Cross Blue Shield, reaching vice president.

Jake mentioned that his grandfather developed a standard hospital accounting system, streamlining the payment system at hospitals into one smooth procedure. He founded and joined boards, for healthcare planning, hospital accounting, and Cub Scouts, leading Pack 80.

He founded Keeler Family Realtors in Pembroke in 1977, and the company’s signs began popping up everywhere. That, plus the high visibility created by his sons’ feats on the Pembroke Academy basketball team ensured that this family name would become synonymous with the Suncook Valley.

His sons today range from ages 57 to 70. Four boys played for state championship teams at Pembroke Academy. Mike played at 6-foot-8. Craig remains one of the top scorers in school history.

The boys learned discipline, to say the least, and that maturity of mind helped create star players. Jeff said his father would return from a week-long business trip and, first thing, check the chart Norma had been monitoring on the refrigerator.

“If you got out of line while dad was away, mom would put a check mark next to your name,” Jeff said. “He had a pocket knife, and he’d hand it to you, and that was the unspoken sign to go out and cut a switch and come back and take your licking.”

By time Duane retired, seven of his eight sons had worked for him. He fished, hunted, played golf, traveled. He boated on Lake Winnipesaukee, near the family home he’d built on Bear Island. He and Norma were guides, leading a fleet of boats through parts of the Florida Keys.

And each time the bad stuff entered his life, Duane wouldn’t budge.

Jake and Jeff pointed to his war days, when he survived the Japanese and 60-degree-below-zero temperatures. Doctors gave him little chance of surviving the infection that attacked his pancreas when he was a young man. He had open-heart surgery. He wore a pacemaker for years. He turned 80, 85, 90 and so on.

Jake and Jeff compared Duane to a cat on steroids, with Jake saying his grandpa had 23 lives, Jeff said more like 29.

“He was a man with a purpose and he accomplished an awful lot during his long life,” Jeff said.

He and Jake built a mahogany urn, Duane’s final resting place, using the wood Duane had collected and the skills he had given them.

Even at the end, things worked out nicely for Duane. He died in his home. He died with Norma by his side. He died peacefully.

“He got tired and weaker and he went to sleep in mom’s arms,” Jeff said. “Who could ask for anything better than that?”

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