H. Bertram Keller – November 18, 2004
Some people are the glue that holds people together. How they do it varies. But the fellow who served that good and Godly purpose for many of us who lived and moved and had our being in Valley Stream, New York, Bert Keller by name, did it by dint of his unbounded enthusiasm for every cause of which he was a part.
Thursday morning, November 18th, a hundred or more of us, who had had a personal acquaintance with Bert’s exuberantly unifying spirit, met to say “goodbye” to him, to celebrate his life, and to offer sympathy and thanks to his family.
What follows are some, if not all, of the eulogies offered at the funeral service, held (of course!) at GraceUnited Methodist Church, Valley Stream, New York. Pastor John H. Cole presided. Students from Central High School chorus led the congregation in the singing of "Give My Regards to Broadway." Former pastor, Bob Howard, was privileged to offer the sermon, explaining "where Bert is now." The Rev. Barbara Melzer, United Methodist pastor, a former student of Bert’s, was the lector and spoke during the “Naming” moment in worship of her providential connections with Bert as a student, teacher, and pastor-to-be. Goddaughter Sarah Robertson spoke charmingly of her and Bert’s mutual distaste for string beans. Sam Zurich, Central High School Class of 1941 President, the class for which Bert was the advisor sixty three years ago, highlighted Bert’s “stability and commitment.” Dick Keidel, CHS Class of 1950 president, gave a comprehensive biography of Bert, from Valley Stream to Kansas to Broadway to Valley Stream, noting how his life went full circle, geographically and faithfully. Daughter Kathleen Keller fondly remembered Dad’s desire to share the sweetness, and provided everyone present with a peppermint candy as they left the church on the way to the burial, with the strains of Bert's favorite hymn, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," still echoing.
Bert was laid to rest in the family plot at Greenfield Cemetery, Hempstead, New York.
"Where Bert Is Now" - Pastor Robert W. Howard
Mr. Keller. Mr. Central High School. Bert. Mr. Valley Stream. Mr. Grace Church. You have heard the wonderful personal tributes paid by those of us who have been touched by his life and the enthusiasm with which he infused every community privileged to claim him as a member. There’s not much more that I can add.
Except to tell you of two incidents, one at the beginning and one near the ending, of our ministry together in Grace Church. On that evening in May of 1973 when the Pastor Parish Relations Committee gathered at the Budde house on E. Euclid, to interview the young whippersnapper candidate for the pastorate, a fellow from Brooklyn named Howard, Bert was there and asked me the question as to how I would retrieve the lost sheep that had wandered away in recent years. Bert wanted his church to grow and prosper; and, aided by his own invincible optimism, his church did find a way into the future, if less triumphant, still no less faithful and strong.
Fast forward twenty-seven years. The second incident, in the year preceding my retirement, when the United Methodist Men struggled with declining membership, Bert was the one who raised a pertinent question. “Where,” he asked, “are our black brothers?” The next meeting he took it upon himself to issue personal invitations to those he missed. His witness in that moment was a superb combination of the outreaching love of Christ and his desire to see the church alive and strong in a new millennia.
So let me tell you what Bert is doing now. Regaling the alumni of the T-N-T Club seated next to him at the Great Banquet Feast of Heaven with reports about you and the fun they missed after their departure earlier to the Father’s House, said in Bert’s own inimitable, whimsical, and gently teasing style. That’s what Bert is doing now.
And playing heaven’s concert grand organ, finding the lost chord, sending tumultuous waves from the swelling music all over God’s heaven, with a melody that sounds very much like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That’s what Bert is doing now.
Also, making the rounds of many of the rooms in the Father’s House. Just stopping in to say “hello,” keeping tabs, seeing if anyone needs anything, reporting the latest gossip, leaving them laughing, letting them know that God loves them and Bert does too. That’s what Bert is doing now.
And finding the peace and rapture that always seemed to elude his grasp here on earth, no matter how close he came to touching it. Bert never was one to be perplexed with eternal issues about why this or that. He was too restless for extended reflection. But what made him God’s Energizer Bunny for those of us who knew him and loved him also had its downside, which few of us, other than Peg and the immediate family, were ever allowed to see. “Our hearts,” St. Augustine has taught us to pray, “are restless until they find rest in Thee.”
That’s the serenity which now has found Bert, a perfect peace that passes all understanding.
Eternal God, in whom we find our peace, here on earth, if in bits and pieces, then in your kingdom with a wholehearted embrace, let that peace rest upon Bert, our Bert as surely as he is yours, something more than a surcease of struggle, a fullness and richness of well-being. For our friend, father, grandfather, and dear husband, has been busy, so very busy, for you and yours throughout his days, going so fast and so splendidly we could hardly believe nearly ninety years had passed. You were good to him. He was good for you. We thank you for his unfailing cheerfulness, his boundless enthusiasm, his endless pursuit of good work, and his lifelong faithfulness to you. On his behalf we thank you for providing him with a loving and loyal helpmate from the Kansas plains, to hold him steady, when he might fly to high or sink too low. His Margaret he would put at the top of his list of blessings from you. With children, Dick and Kathleen, not far behind, grandchildren, and nieces, surrogate children and their, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, all of whom surrounded him with their affection and held him in their care as he did for them. Let that surrounding continue, if with the prayers ascending to heaven and the house with many rooms, than in that eternal home with those whom we and Bert have loved and lost awhile. Make the music which filled his heart on earth, echo and reecho in the better scenes of heaven, adding yet more joyous music, with melody and words not heard before. And hold him and us together in the sweet communion of souls who love you and your son Jesus, that he reaching down and we reaching up may make find a fellowship that never ends; through the same Jesus Christ who has showed us the way in this life and into the next. Amen.
Eulogy for My Father, H. Bertram Keller
November 18, 2004
Grace United Methodist Church, Valley Stream, NY
On behalf of the entire Keller family, thank you for being a part of this celebration of Bert’s life.
When you think about Bert, isn’t the first thing you do is smile? Isn’t the second thing you do say something like, “I remember when Bert…” There are many stories associated with Bert. Every part of his life is rich with them: some we know and some we don’t. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out about one of his adventures. Imagine my shock, when I heard that Bert, about the age of 11, lead his Sunday School Class, from right here at Grace Methodist, on a Sunday School trip. Where did Bert lead those boys? To the appointed church in the city where they were supposed to visit? No, he took them to see Minsky’s Burlesque Show. Finally, it made sense to me why my normally strict father was very understanding about my youthful indiscretions here at Grace….
As a child I heard wild tales about how this poor New Yorker came to the plains of Kansas and was tricked, unmercifully, by the Broadie family. At the start, my mother’s family, I think, didn’t know quite what to do with this city kid. This morning we heard some of the Central High and Valley Stream stories, of which there are thousands. Each one of you probably has your own Bert stories.
He arrived at Central in 1938 as an idealistic teacher determined to make a difference…and he did. But, of all those Central stories, one stands out as quintessentially Bert. Not only was it one of Bert’s favorites, but I used it to give my freshman college speech class’ “Most Influential Person in My Life” speech. It got me an A, and I would go on to become an English, speech and drama teacher just like Bert. I would like to read from Bert’s own account of this incident.
The Baseball Team, The Motorcycle Gang, and
The New Assistant Principal: Bert Keller
Had my task been controlling the lives of students within the school, I think I could have managed that fairly well. However, I met a major challenge toward the end of my first year as the new assistant principal of Central High. Central faced a heavily trafficked avenue. Therefore, teachers whose classrooms faced the thoroughfare had to face an additional challenge during the warm months, long before the advent of air conditioning. To get some relief from the heat and humidity, open windows were the only source of making the room more tolerable.
About one-half hour before dismissal each day, a cavalcade of motorcyclists would cross the Rosedale -Valley Stream border, roar down Fletcher Avenue and pull up on the opposite side of the school and proceed to rev up their engines to a mighty crescendo!
Naturally, that drew the ire of the teachers, and down to the office would come complaints. We had a police station about a mile from school, and I would call for them to appear on the scene to break up the ROSEDALE BLACKHEADS, a term I had coined for them. They wore black leather jackets, topped with red bandannas on their heads. After obeying the police orders to leave, the cyclists would retreat and wait until the police cars would leave, and zing back to their original destination.
It was a Friday afternoon—a beautiful but humid day—when the brigade made its way down the avenue, pulled up opposite the school starting another rev session, defying anything or anybody.
Ed Kurfess, my principal, shouted to me: “Bert, go across the street and get rid of that gang!” I gulped—not once, not twice—but constantly! I took a deep breath, dashed out the front door, down the steps and across the street to confront the one who I thought looked like the leader.
What were my thoughts as I did this? Was I going to be clobbered while the students witnessed my massacre? Would they say nice things about me after I was gone? Would my legs give out as I faced the ordeal? Oh, why the hell did I become an administrator?
Just picture me—I was about 5’ 8” weighing about 150 lbs. My nemesis looked like a refugee football center. In the best roaring voice I could muster, I shouted: “Get the hell on your motorcycles and get out before I call the cops again!” The leader of the Blackheads looked at me sneeringly for a minute and slowly swung his leg over his 2-wheeler and strutted toward me, and said, “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”
It was at that precise moment I sensed something even more sinister. The other Blackheads had left their machines and had completely encircled me. I must have turned 6 shades of white! But then I stood wide-eyed as I noticed the gang was beginning to drop back. Slowly but surely they were moving back to their motorcycles. “Wow!” I thought, “I’m really showing them who’s boss!” I felt my frozen blood de-icing. Then, I looked back at the school to see if there were any witnesses and sure enough it looked like every student and teacher at Central was hanging out the front windows. My moment of glory was fleeting, for then I saw… Central’s baseball team had returned from an away game. Each member armed with a bat, was rushing down the terrace towards me and the Blackheads. Before I could say another word, the deafening roar of the engines almost blew out my eardrums and down the avenue they sped. It was a sight I shall never forget. And you know what—the Blackheads never returned.
In all Bert stories, there is a common thread. Almost a Chaplinesque quality…the little, sweet man—everyman—overcoming all odds—whether in victory or defeat, always maintaining his dignity, a natural grace ---and an inherent sweetness.
Many of you know that for over 60 years Bert never left the house without a packof Peppermint Lifesavers in his pocket. He shared them with anyone who was in close proximity…maybe even with you.Peppermint Lifesavers.
What a wonderful symbol of the sweetness of this one man.
Let me ask you,
Is there anyone here that Bert ever smiled at you as if you were the most important person on earth--
Would you raise your hand?
Is there is anyone here for whom Bert had a kind or empathetic word--
Would you raise your hand?
Is there is anyone here for whom Bert went out of his way to help--
Would you raise your hand?
Is there is anyone for whom Bert believed in you and gave you confidence to move on thru life’s complexities--
Would you raise your hand?
It’s a rich and wonderful legacy Bert leaves
- A devoted wife of 64 years, Margaret Evelyn Broadie, who was his rock and most faithful supporter
- Two children, Richard and myself, that managed to find their way in this world and stay close to the things he loved: education, the theatre, and the church, and the second farmer’s daughter to join the family, Dick’s wife, Karen
- Two phenomenal (OK, I’m a prejudiced aunt) grandsons, Russell and Matthew who were the light of his later life and their wives, Annie and Laura, and most recently
- Two great grandsons, Benjamin Henry (his namesake) and Andrew Barclay who made his face beam with pride
- Two adopted in the family daughters, Marie Moore Jahnsen and Eileen Robertson and an adopted granddaughter, Sarah Robertson
- Twelve nieces and nephews and their spouses whom he loved each for their own unique personalities including 4 nephews present today. Bruce and Bobby Keller, sons of Bert’s brother, Willis, both life long Valley Streamers: Sam Leben, of El Dorado, Kansas, son of mom’s sister and life-long best friend, Hallie Leben: and one nephew, the son of his best friend Raymond Broadie, Bill Broadie. Bill is our own family’s Viet Nam hero, who Bert and Margaret visited in the VA hospital in Philadelphia every week for months after his return.
- And countless other extended family members.
But to say we are dad’s only legacy would sell him short. Because you, and certainly anyone who graduated from Central High School after 1938, attended Grace Methodist or belonged to his myriad community associations are his legacies too.
I’m going to pull a “Bert” on you. Bert always saw every occasion as a
Remember all the kindnesses done to you by this one sweet man? On your way out, you will see representatives from the CHS class of 1941 with Peppermint Lifesavers…. Please take one, offer it to someone else---along with a simple act of kindness. Pay tribute to Bert by keeping alive the way he lived. As he made a difference in so many lives, let’s you and I make a difference in someone’s life today. Say hello to a stranger, make someone laugh, give your time and energy to someone in need, make a child feel confident. From a very early age Bert showed God’s love in very practical ways…every day to every one. That’s Bert’s legacy. Take that peppermint and transform it into a true lifesaver.
Bert’s always believed that showing God’s love to everyone you meet is the only legacy worth leaving. How about it? Shall we honor Bert the way he always honored us?
Father, to you I say, “Good night, sweet prince…and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest….”
A Tribute to my dear friend Bert Keller
Given by Richard Keidel, Valley Stream Central High School class of 1950 at
Grace United Methodist Church, Valley Stream, New York November 18, 2004Friends, while we come here to mourn, to pay tribute, and to say farewell to Bert Keller, a true son of Valley Stream, we are also here to celebrate his remarkable life. For it was, without doubt, a life well lived... a life surrounded by a loving family, long in years, filled with good health, good works, much humor, much friendship and a strong religious faith. It was a life that can be held before us as a shining example of how true greatness can be achieved in one small place by an extremely talented, yet very humble, hardworking man.
Though Bert Keller spent almost his entire life in Valley Stream he did have a very strong connection with that state made almost mythical in the movie "The Wizard of Oz" ... Kansas. For it was there he attended Southwestern College in Winfield, where he not only earned a Bachelor’s degree but met the love of his life, Margaret, (Peg to most of us), who grew up there on a ranch. And this grandson of a Valley Stream farmer was to marry that daughter of a Kansas rancher. You couldn’t write a better American love story than that. And, in later years daughter Kathleen would also graduate from Southwestern College and son Richard would make his home in Kansas and teach at Emporia State.
There is that well known scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy closes her eyes, clicks her heels together and says three times "There’s no place like home", in an attempt to get back to her beloved Kansas. And it works and she is back there in a twinkling.
I don’t know if at graduation from Southwestern College Bert clicked his heels together three times and said "there’s no place like home", referring to Valley Stream, but that was the message he sent to us all for the rest of his long and very productive life..."that Valley Stream was his home, and "there’s no place like home.
Remarkably Valley Stream is where Bert spent almost all of his 89 years, where he lived and worked and worshiped, except for those 4 years in Kansas. Consider the circle of his life. He was born at 200 Wheeler Avenue in Valley Stream, just about a mile north of this church. If you use that point as the center of a circle with a one mile radius and begin the circle directly west it will encompass Wheeler Avenue School that he attended (in the old school) and Valley Stream Central High School which he also attended and where he later taught for 48 years.
Then moving south, his parents’ home on Corona Avenue, and just across Merrick Road, this church, where he as a member for more than 80 years, then east and north his current home on Argyle Street and further north, still within that one mile radius, the Orzac Rehab Facility and Franklin Medical Center where this past Sunday morning, Bert was to finally close the circle. How could one person shape so many lives, make so many friends, do so many wonderful things, in so small an area? In his life story there is an object lesson for us all about how much good work can be done right where we live.
I first met Bert Keller about 58 years ago, 1946 to be exact, when he came into my 9th grade public speaking class at Central High School to speak with our teacher. Actually breezed in is a better description of his entrance. He was smiling and joking, his entrance was light hearted and airy and, in one fell swoop, he put the whole class at ease. That was vintage Bert Keller. In coming years I would learn that this disarming style cloaked perhaps the most effective educator I ever met.
How did he do it? I believe it was due to that wonderful combination of traits that made up his persona and a lot of extremely hard work. He had a marvelous sense of humor, loved to laugh, loved to entertain. He was a born communicator, a real "people person", and usually a very good judge of character. Before the term "pushing the edge of the envelope" became popular he encouraged his students to innovate, find new solutions, to go with the flow, to find their groove. He was able to locate the best that was in his students and draw it out. That is a rare talent. In no area did he do this better than in the theatrical productions that he oversaw at Central High School where he achieved some of his greatest successes and created his legendary support among students and alumni who voted him "Mr. Central".
As a student in Central High School in the late 1940's and 1950 and participant in 6 plays directed by Bert Keller, I often saw this remarkable ability in action.
I also saw his willingness to consider and implement new ideas and employ unique solutions to problems. In one of the plays our class produced, "Life With Father" the script called for each of the four sons to be redheads. When our red wigs arrived a day before the performance they were unuseable. The proposed solution, to which Bert acquiesced with considerable relish, was for the four actors to be sneaked into a hair salon on Rockaway Avenue as it was getting dark, and have their hair dyed red. It worked very well, and much better than any wigs.
Another time we decided to do a very popular play called "I Remember Mamma" which had so many rapid scene changes that it would require three stages, the main one and two smaller, rotating stages to the sides. Rather than not doing the play, the proposed student solution was to build two smaller stages out of wood about 9 feet above the main stage.
All went well until after dress rehearsal when all actors and stage crew posed on all three stages for a yearbook picture. And, overcrowding on the upper stages, which had been forbidden, caused them to very slowly collapse. Fortunately, no one was hurt. And, a student’s parent donated the services of his construction company to erect new upper stages within two days, this time using several 8" steel "I" beams. This highly sophisticated technique...the first use of multiple stages in a Central High production worked very well. And, I think we all learned that somewhat radical solutions to problems sometimes require readjustments in our behavior. But, for Bert Keller to go with that solution required a certain vision and daring that students greatly admired and surely advanced the state of our performing art.
Years later I was to know Bert Keller much more closely through this church. And, I was amazed at the amount of hard work he did here in the service of others. It appeared to equal his involvement at Central High School. He held many important and labor intensive posts here, in this church, some for more than 15 or 20 years.
Years after I left Central High, in my business career, I had the good fortune to cross paths with many top executives of U.S. industry, a number of whom were very impressive, but none of whom I would call "great". So it was during those years I decided that modest living, fun-loving Bert Keller, life-long resident of Valley Stream, a teacher who could inspire students, later principal in our schools, devoted husband and parent, faithful church member, was as close to "great" as anyone I ever met.
For it has been said that true greatness comes not from possessing honors, but simply from deserving them. Bert Keller certainly deserved more honors than he ever possessed. And, while it may not be obvious to us because we were too close to him, let us remember that "greatness" is a quality best observed from afar and after years have passed. Although I think the recognition of Bert Keller’s greatness as a teacher and simply as a person has already become apparent to many hundreds and perhaps thousands of Central alumni.
And, the fact is while he was still with us Bert was memorialized by Central High School and several of his ex-students who wanted to honor his rare talents. One way was to have the auditorium in Central named after him. Another was to have a dressing room named after him in a New York City theater. One Central alumnus, Ray Sipherd, a writer on the award winning children’s series "Sesame Street" immortalized Bert by creating a character called Bert (part of the Bert and Ernie duo) modeled after Bert Keller from his looks to his actions, that in reruns will continue on for generations. [RWH - click on the following hyperlink for graphic evidence of this inspiration:Bert (and Ernie)]
Bert Keller was one of those rare persons who was "larger than life", but, he would be the first to admit that all he did would not have been possible without the support, encouragement and forbearance of his devoted wife Peg, and his loving children.
We were, all of us, so fortunate to have him in our lives. I know that my continued friendship with this good man, especially over the past 30 years, was one of the delights of my adult life.
Godspeed dear teacher and friend.
Sarah Robertson's Tribute to Mr. Keller
Good morning. My name is Sarah Robertson. Mr. Keller was my Godfather and adopted Grandpa.
I lost my own grandpa when I was very young. Mr. Keller has always been there for me. He would always play with me – we’d make up games and they were always fun. Mr. Keller always listened to me and we had long long talks. He made me feel grown up. I think we had a special bond. On holidays we would sit down together after our meal and read. I would usually fall asleep on his lap.
When Mr. Keller was in Rehab, I had to do a project for English. The assignment was to read the book SHANE. He was excited about that and told me how that was one of the books he used to teach long ago. We had fun discussing it and he would smile when I would keep asking him why I had to read such an OLD book! He told me stories about when he was a teacher and more importantly, why he was a teacher. Mr. Keller told me all about Central High School and some of the things my Mom and Aunt Kathy were involved in!! I cannot wait until I get to Central High School and make Mr. Keller proud of me.
There are 100,000 things that I could share with you, but I’ll keep this short and just tell you one of my very favorite things. A memory I will always have.
On every holiday my Mom, Grandma and I would go over to the Keller’s for one of Mrs. Keller’s great dinners. One of my LEAST favorite foods in this world are VEGETABLES, especially s t r i n g b e a n s. Well, Mr. Keller would always bet me that he could eat more string beans than I could. It usually ended up a tie. I just recently learned that Mr. Keller really didn’t like them either.
I have a very special picture of Mr. Keller and I eating these famous String Beans. It is a picture I will always cherish.
But, in his memory (and I know you are smiling now Mr. Keller), I am going to give up eating STRING BEANS.
I Love You and Miss you Mr. Keller.
Sam Zurich's Tribute
It is good that so many of us are here this morning to honor Bert. I'm sure you agree that there are many more of us, beyond this sanctuary, who could not be here this morning who feel as we do. And the reason is simple: each of us was touched by Bert in a special and meaningful way For many of us it was in our earlier years, at school, when we were vulnerable to influence. And there he was - Mr. Keller - doing his job of teaching, guiding, counseling and inspiring us toward mature and responsible adulthood. Or the situation could have been in any one of a number of other scenarios. The results were always the same. Being involved with Bert Keller made you a better person.
Bert began his lifetime career at Central High School in 1939. He was an English teacher, with two additional assignments: directing school plays and faculty advisor to the class of 1941. It was my good fortune to have been a member of that class and, thanks to Bert, my attitude and ambitions in school took a major turn for the better as a result of his presence. Some years later our student-teacher relationship turned into a genuine friendship, one that I cherished for more than 60 years.
There are two interesting observations about Bert which revealed to me, stability and commitment in his manner and lifestyle. First, in his entire working career, Bert Keller had only one employer - Valley Stream Central High School. He never worked for anyone or anywhere else. Second, except for his college years in Kansas where, by the way, he met and married his sweetheart of more than 60 years, Bert lived only in Valley Stream. He was born and raised in Valley Stream, he and Peg found their home in Valley Stream and raised their beautiful family in Valley Stream.
Stability and commitment - Bert's secret to a good life. It certainly worked for him.
There is a severe hurt among us in the loss of this wonderfully gentle, kind, and fun-loving Bert Keller. But there is also a strong feeling of gratitude for having been able to share even a small part of his life. That makes his parting so much easier.