R.I.P. Mr. Keech
Local Legend leaves a legacy
“STARS AND STRIPES” … mural painted by Jim Keech that he is standing in front of at the Watervliet VFW Post #1137.
By Angela Widdis
James Heaton Keech, a life-long resident of the area, died on August 4, 2020. He was 87 years old. His obituary is on Page 5 of this week’s Tri-City Record.
Mr. Keech was a true polymath by definition, a person with a wide range of knowledge. He was a well-read, well-traveled, well-rounded, and well-connected individual who always was giving of himself in one way or another through his time, talents, or treasure.
Service to students
Beginning his teaching career at Hartford he then took a position in 1960 at the old Watervliet High School that once stood on the corner of Red Arrow Highway and M-140. Keech taught classes that ranged from English to Speech, Drama to Wood Shop, Civics to U.S Government, History to Mathematics, Journalism and yes, even a year of Art during his 36-year tenure.
Jim Keech was a teacher that has been fondly remembered over the years. Since the news of his passing, many former students have been sharing the impact that he has made on them that has lasted for many years.
Elaine Shane Flore, WHS Class of 1965, stated, “Mr. Keech was my teacher for six straight years beginning in seventh grade. I also was in the first musicals he directed: Mr. Crane of Sleepy Hollow, Shillaleagh-O, and Brigadoon. Mr. Keech made an impression on our class the first year he came to Watervliet. We were in fear and awe of him at first. Then we were in love with his teaching style, his stories, the cartoons on the blackboard, his mentoring, and his larger than life presence. In fact, a number of us, including me, followed in his footsteps and became teachers. I believe we tried to emulate his way of making learning lively and engaging.”
Barbara (Flaherty) Schofield, WHS Class of 1965, wrote… “The most memorable thing to me was an assignment for Speech class. We had to write a short speech and mine was on the topic of love. I got an A- (only because I switched from 1st to 2nd person in the body of it) but in the margin, he had written: ‘I hope you save this and read it again in 10 years’. I still have that paper and I have read it numerous times because he knew what I had written was something I needed to remember always, and I have.”
Civic-minded, Keech would have juniors and seniors in his U.S. Government classes register to vote. In 1988 alone, 36 of his former students registered that year. One of his students, Tricia (Krogel) Cole, WHS Class of 1995, recalled that in her senior year of high school she decided to slack off after having made decent grades in the past. Mr. Keech came to her and told her that she was not going to pass his U.S. Government class. However, he quickly offered her a solution. He explained to Tricia that if she did some extra credit, he would in turn give her a barely passing grade. She was eager to learn of the assessment and even more surprised when the requirement was to become a registered voter.
During the 1987-88 school year Keech took a sabbatical in order to take his teaching career overseas. This first trip with the Michigan/Shiga Exchange Teacher program would be the first of many that he would make over the years. In the most journalistic fashion, Keech would send articles back to the Tri-City Record telling the readers of his adventures, reporting on his daily living in a foreign country, and of his mission to teach English to Japanese students. Those articles would later be turned into a book titled, “Gaijin Journal.”
Teaching is an ethical act. The term ethics is derived from the Greek word ethos, which can mean custom, habit, character, or disposition. Mr. Keech enlightened those who cared to learn across the globe, about the human condition through his very own understanding and ethics. He imparted wisdom that went well beyond any textbook and he shared, through example, how to give empathy, how to use your voice, how to work under pressure, build something out of nothing, how to handle rejection, to work as a team, gain interpersonal skills, and no matter what happens; “the show must go on!”
Service to our country
James Heaton Keech was a member of the U.S. Air Force for over four years. He spent most of his service in Japan during the Korean War where he received the Japan Occupation Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, and the United Nations Service Medal.
In an article from the November 6, 2014 issue of the Tri-City Record about Veterans Day, Keech was quoted saying, “he is pleased to hear the phrase, ‘Thank you for your service’” when he is wearing his Korean Veteran baseball hat that many of us had seen him in.
However, his service did not stop while he was enlisted. As a member of the VFW Post #1137, he was the Quartermaster. He was the officer responsible for all the post funds and property and bill paying. Not only that, but he also painted a mural on the Post’s walls.
Service to the senior community
It wasn’t uncommon for Keech to invite the local senior citizens to the dress rehearsals to be the audience for the student performers. Not only did they provide a live audience for many of the first-time performers, but Keech would also always take the opportunity to remind the actors of the need to project their voices. Reminding all on the stage the importance for these special guests to actually hear what was being said on stage, not just see it.
In addition, Keech could be found driving the golf cart shuttle at the Lakeland Hospital during his free time. Offering people a ride from the parking lot to the building, thus offering him another captive audience to spread his zest for life with.
EXCHANGE TEACHER … Jim Keech standing with two of his “Conversational English” students in Xi’an, China, in 2009.
Service to his craft
Mr. Keech received his degrees from Western Michigan University in 1960 with the help of the G.I. Bill; one being in Social Studies and the other, Drama, of course. Later, in 1965, he earned a Master’s Degree in Communications.
Jim’s first drama that he directed came during his student teaching at the Muskegon (Michigan) High School, a love affair that would lead him to productions totaling well into the 300s. His first production at Watervliet High School was Mr. Crane of Sleepy Hollow.
Dawn (Levine) Knuth, WHS Class of 1986, fondly recalls, “He instilled that ‘love of performance’ in my heart forever.” She went on to say, “He instructed not only me but my mother as well. She went on to say that he even came to see one of her sons perform in a theatrical production not so long ago. “He impacted many generations. I’d like to think that he had some awareness of this impact he had and how much he has been loved and by how many people. Rest in peace and enjoy the show,” said Knuth.
Seeing the potential for character development both on and off the stage, he was always on the lookout for potential new cast members. One student, Scott Moore, WHS Class of 1986, recalls his introduction to the fine arts like this, “My senior year, I had Mr. Keech for government, like so many other WHS students. One day in class, he yells, ‘Moore! As much as you acted up in class, you should try out for one of my productions.’ Needless to say, I was in the next musical and play. Thank you, Mr. Keech.”
Keech trained his acting students to embrace each role with a great sense of reality. Personally I, Angela (McVay) Widdis, WHS Class of 1989, was able to be a part of at least 10 of his productions through my high school and my adult years. My greatest honor was to be able to learn from Keech the other side of the production, directing. Seated alongside him, as an assistant director, opened a greater appreciation for the man behind it all. I was most struck by the way he would take artistic liberties with the script to include lines or intentional spotlights for each and every student that graced the stage. Making sure each student’s role had a character name.
“Working with Jim was a great honor,” says Debi McVay, a retired paraprofessional who worked at Watervliet High School. She recalls helping costume many students through the years but one memory sticks out for her, “I remember helping to costume the musical, Guys and Dolls, he [Keech] would draw a picture and say this is what I need.” McVay says it was her job to make it happen from the prop room or her sewing machine.
In 1997, Keech took on a new creative outlet role as a cartoonist for the Tri-City Record after he retired from teaching at the high school. The subject matters ranged from political commentary to messages about paying attention to the road while driving.
With cartoons totaling over 700 in number, the Record is happy to share a few of the favorites in issues to come.
Service to sports
Jim Keech attended Hartford High School where he started his football career in 8th grade on the junior varsity team. Size being his greatest asset at that time, Keech perfected his game play throughout the years so much that he had earned the title of Class C All-State. Taking that love even further, he played at the college level and then while he was stationed in Japan. Keeping that flame alive, Keech was a football coach and then later an announcer for the Watervliet Panthers in both football and basketball.
The colorful way he would refer to the penalty flags during football will always be remembered by those in the stands. “A yellow bandanna” or “a white hankie has been thrown on the field” he would exclaim! Listening to his commentary was a theatrical production in and of itself.
Final curtain call
Keech’s versatility extended to many different audiences. He was at ease in front of the public eye whether as a teacher in front of his students or a coach in front of his football or basketball players. He felt at home on stages across the county as an actor or behind the scenes as a director at Sister Lakes Playhouse, Beckwith Theater, Twin City Players, and the Southwestern Michigan Musical Theatre, or behind the pen as a cartoonist and journalist or behind the microphone as an announcer.
Though it would be impossible to cover the vast depths of this man’s character in one article, these memories shared here are what, in part, made the man that many of us knew and loved. Yet, they are just but a small portion of what made the legacy that will be forever attached to his name.
Our deepest heartfelt condolences go to the Keech family with a message of thanks. Thank you for sharing this man with the world as we stand and applaud all that he was to so many of us.
COVID-19 updates: Gov. orders masks for daycares & camps; Big 10 bows out
By Jon Bisnett Governor Gretchen Whitmer has now extended Michigan’s coronavirus emergency through Sept. 4, enabling her to keep in place restrictions designed to curb COVID-19. Yet another Executive Order from the Governor’s pen will now impose requiring children and workers to wear face masks at Michigan childcare centers, camps. Executive Order 2020-164 was issued in response to mounting evidence that children can contract and spread the virus as easily as adults. All staff and children ages 2 and older will now have to wear face coverings on school buses and other transportation. Staff and children ages 4 and older must have masks in all indoor common spaces. Public health crisis Whitmer also signed an executive directive calling racism as a public health crisis in Michigan. Citing the inequitable effect of the coronavirus in black communities, the directive makes demand of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to make health equity a major goal and required implicit bias training for all state employees. Republican opposition called the action “media grandstanding” in the week prior to assumed Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden’s planned announcement of a running mate. Whitmer was on the short list of all female contenders, but had fallen from the conversation in recent weeks. Shutdowns Disneyland of California has just announced that they will be canceling reservations through Aug. 29. Downtown Disney shopping and dining district is open. The theme parks remain closed pending state approval to reopen. It’s been more than a week since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an order specifically naming water parks as operations that must close due to the spread of COVID-19, yet Michigan’s Adventure WildWater Adventure Water Park remains open because officials there contend it is a swimming pool, according to the local health director. It began with the schools of the Ivy League over a month ago. Last week the MAC, including Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan universities bowed out. And as expected Tuesday, Aug. 11 NCAA Big 10 and Pac 12 conferences officially announced they have pulled the plug on fall sports. Included in this announcement are men’s and women’s cross-country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 are reported as still on the fence, but considering the coronavirus hot spots in the states of Texas and Florida, the odds are most definitely against them. Federal COVID Relief The new round of COVID-19 support remains stalled on Capitol Hill prompting an Executive Order from President Trump. Trump’s actions are as follows: Extends unemployment support in the amount of $400, with $300 coming from the Federal Government and the other $100 to be made up by the individual states; empowers the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Director of CDC to consider whether any measures temporarily halting residential evictions may be appropriate; extends Federal Student Loan interest waiver to December 31; defers Federal Payroll Withholding Tax from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31, for people earning less than $100,000 a year. Back to school The nation’s educators are watching Tennessee and Georgia public schools as they opened to students this week. A rocky start has already closed one school. Etowah High School, in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District, posted 14 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 15 tests pending. Nearly 300 students and staff are currently under quarantine. Should more tests prove positive, that number will dramatically increase. Tri-City Area schools submit their detailed reopening plans to the Michigan Department of Education this week.