By PAUL A. BARRA
COLUMBIA – On Feb. 27, Sertoma International finally made official what folks in the Midlands have known for years: Robert Keeder has dedicated his life to the needy.
Keeder was honored by the North Lake Sertoma Club “for significant and meritorious service to mankind.” His 2001 Service To Mankind Award citation states: “One of the most amazing facts about the life of Robert Keeder is his virtually infinite capacity for love and concern for others. He maintains a schedule of visits to those in need or trouble that is simply staggering.”
In addition to his staggering schedule of weekly hospital, prison and juvenile home visitations, Keeder is the driving force behind the huge Thanksgiving feast at the Carolina Coliseum, which has been a joint effort of St. Peter Church and First Baptist Church of Columbia since 1990. He also works monthly dinners for the homeless, as well as Christmas and Easter parties for the poor at his home parish. He has been an active parishioner at St. Peter since 1968, but it was in 1989 when his life took a sharp turn upward and his paying job suddenly seemed less demanding than the volunteer work he would take on.
That was the year of crisis for Keeder. He asked God, he said, for the strength to weather a deep personal storm. When his prayers were answered, he decided to reciprocate.
“It all changed. I promised the Lord when he healed me that I would dedicate my life to something. Didn’t know what,” Keeder said.
He found out and has been a mainstay of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of St. Peter Church ever since. The man who was orphaned at 9 had found a home.
When his mother died in 1955, Keeder and his three brothers were placed in St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Michigan. His life for the next 10 years centered around the Felician Sisters. He was under their care and influence from the time he woke in the morning until he went to sleep at night, he said. He credits the nuns with shaping his spiritual life. The Felicians were there again at Father Flanagan’s Boys Town in Omaha, where the Keeder boys went after the orphanage. He graduated from Boys Town with “great memories,” one of which was singing in the home’s traveling concert choir at venues like New York’s Radio City Music Hall. He also came away with a vocation.
That took him to The Oratory in Rock Hill to prepare for life as a brother. After three years, he left the monastery, but not the Catholic Church he loves, and not South Carolina. Juanita Warthen, coordinator of youth formation at St. Peter’s, is glad he decided to stay.
“It is amazing to me that he is just working through this illness,” Warthen said. “He is an inspiration.”
The illness she referred to is the modern-day horror, colon cancer. Stricken in September last year, Keeder has undergone 28 radiation sessions plus chemotherapy. His disease is in remission now, but his immune system was weakened from toxic chemical injections when the 10th annual Thanksgiving dinner was taking place. He had gotten most of his organizing done on the phone, but the crowds at the dinner itself were a threat to his health. Keeder argued with his oncologist and eventually persuaded him to let him take part in the event he co-chairs, when upwards of 1,000 people are fed a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Volunteers saw him in his surgical mask, looking pale and fragile, and marveled at his commitment. That’s the kind of inspiration Warthen talked about, although Keeder himself has another description of it.
“I told the doctor that I had to go to the Coliseum. That’s my work. Sometime I call it my magnificent obsession. I can’t say no to the Lord,” he said.
His main attribute is not his obsession as much as his organizational and leadership abilities, according to the pastor of St. Peter, Msgr. Leigh Lehocky.
“One of the graces Robert brings to this community is a real heart for the poor and a talent for organizing people to serve the poor. What he does is more than just a willingness to serve; it’s a ministry,” Msgr. Lehocky said.
Keeder has a simple method for getting people to work for charity: “It’s easy being the Pied Piper. People want to be part of the march. All you have to do is show them how much it benefits them spiritually and benefits the poor.”
He is fighting a deadly cancer in the same way he musters the energy for his vast commitment to charitable work — with a strong prayer life. Robert Keeder is a successful businessman and serves on the board of directors of the Boys Town Alumni Association. He was president of that association from 1985-1989.