Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.
– Ernest Hemingway
Charles C Keller, known as Chuck Keller, was a treasury of wisdom, a reservoir of knowledge and an ocean of experience. He was truly a founding pillar of contemporary Rotary. He was not only part of Rotary’s history, having witnessed many turning points, in many ways he was also a creator of this history.
I vividly remember that I first met Chuck in April, 1983 in Monte Carlo when I was in the second year of my Rotary International Directorship and he was the Chairman of a very significant Council on Legislation (COL) held there. This was the Council which was debating on the programme that Past RI President Clem Renouf had introduced as “Health, Hunger and Humanity” through which he had initiated the Polio eradication programme. Big stalwarts and the voices from the past opposed it on the ground that Rotary projects were only for clubs and there was no provision for taking up collective corporate programmes. And this is what was to be changed in order to take up the Polio challenge.
As the Chairman, Chuck was absolutely fair to both sides that ultimately passed the resolution approving the action of the Board of Directors and the initiative of Sir Clem Renouf. The way Chuck conducted that particular subject truly created an awe about him. This Council also debated many other issues and the way Chuck steered the Council with humour, patience and fairness, was a lesson to learn.
The more I met Chuck during International Assemblies and other committee meetings, I was influenced by his remarkable knowledge of Rotary and his total commitment to his club and district regardless of the position he had held at the international level.
I remember his counsel: “If you have a good point and are convinced of its relevance, pursue it without fear”.
Very distinctly I remember Feb 23, 1986, when I was flying on a charter plane from the International Assembly at Nashville, Tennessee, with my two good friends, the late Bill Sergeant and the late George Arceneaux. I had been invited by the Rotary Club of Chattanooga to speak on the birth anniversary of Rotary. The Nominating Committee for the RI President had selected Chuck Keller to be the President for 1987–88 but he was challenged by a past director from France. This became a topic of discussion between we three friends during the flight and I asked them can one man and his club challenge the nominated candidate and trigger the election process through the whole world costing almost $ 50,000. At that time, it used to be ballot by mail. Could we not do anything about it?
The COL was just two months away in Chicago and there was no time to introduce a new legislative proposal. The only way was to find an existing proposal and introduce an amendment requiring a certain percentage of Rotary clubs worldwide to endorse the challenge. Such an amendment would have to be germane to the main proposal. That was a difficult task because the Chairman of that Council was Judge Wilbur Pell. We selected a particular proposal and left it to George Arceneaux, who himself was a judge, to move the amendment. This was the strategy and it was seconded by Bill Sergeant. I had to make a statement on it. It worked and the provision did come through requiring one per cent of the clubs of the world to endorse any such challenge to be valid. What provoked this discussion was — should a good man like Chuck Keller be challenged? But the new provision would be effective only from the following year and unfortunately Chuck had to go through the election process which ultimately resulted in his resounding victory.
Chuck Keller was born on June 17, 1923 in Goshen, Indiana, US. He joined Rotary in 1950 at the age of 27 as a member of the Rotary Club of California, Pennsylvania. In addition to being RI President, Chuck served as RI Director, The Rotary Foundation Trustee Chair, Chair of the Council on Legislation twice, Chair and Member of innumerable RI Committees. And most recently, he was Chair of the Foundation Centennial History Book Committee.
I was influenced by his remarkable knowledge of Rotary and his total commitment to his club and district regardless of the position he had held at the international level.
Chuck Keller graduated from California State Teachers College with the highest honours in a BS Ed degree in English and Social Science, and received the Distinguish Service Award. Returning to Washington County after law school he decided to pursue law as his career. As an attorney he made great accomplishments. He was a senior partner in the law firm of Peacock, Keller, Yohe, Day and Ecker. He served on the board of governors of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and in 1983 became president of the organisation. In 1986 he received one of the highest honours granted to trial lawyers by the American legal profession. Very soon he earned the reputation of being a Senior Council and professionally hit the top. In the community he had been a director of several agencies, including the Boy Scouts, United Way, Chamber of Commerce and health agencies. During the second world war he was a combat pilot and later joined the US Air Force Reserve, serving in the Judge Advocate General’s branch. He retired in 1972 as a Lieutenant Colonel.
He was an avid sports enthusiast and played basketball and tennis in college. I also used to tinker with tennis and when I came in the senior leadership role after being RI Director, many times Chuck invited me to play with him and other senior Rotary leaders. I realised I was nowhere near their standard and quietly withdrew, becoming a victim of their light-hearted banter!
As RI President he gave the theme to Rotarians — United in Service — Dedicated to Peace. It showed his total commitment and focus on service and peace.
Coming back to my interactions with him I recall the significant dialogue I had with him, something I will never forget. During the Orlando Convention when I was just about to finish my term as RI President, Chuck very candidly told me, “Raja, when you were nominated I did not think that the Nominating Committee had made a good choice. However, I am very happy that you have proved me wrong”. This was Chuck, and this was one of the best compliments I’ve received.
It was my privilege to serve with Chuck in many committees, significant of which was the Rotary Peace Committee, initiated when I was TRF Trustee Chair. He served as Vice-Chairman with me and after I finished my term he took over as the Chairman. He was much senior to me and yet he never forgot the protocol and respected the opinion of the members with fairness and democratic process. There were times when in other committees including Council on Past Presidents we had strong differences on some issues. And I remember his counsel given to me much earlier: “If you have a good point and are convinced of its relevance, pursue it without fear”. And even after such encounters across the table in our discussions, the next day we would be friends again, never letting the mutual respect decline.
When I think of Chuck the verse of Walt Whitman becomes so true to my feelings, “We were together. I forget the rest”.
The story of Chuck will not be complete without mentioning his two wives whom Usha and I had known. Lou, who Chuck loved very dearly and lost her as she suffered a stroke while on a flight. Another lovely lady Carol came into his life and she blended so well with the Rotary family as if she had been there for all the time.
Chuck was a role model being extremely active until the age of 92 with his mind being absolutely alert. Thereafter on his own he said the time had come for him to stop coming to International Assemblies. We all missed him at the last Assembly as also the Convention. In fact, those who have known him will miss him for a lifetime.
For such a man, the departure from this world is truly the celebration of life. And when he meets our Creator in Heaven, he would tell Him, “Thank you for the opportunity and the life that you gave me on the earth”.
Chuck was truly the complete Rotarian, the complete man.
The writer is a Past Rotary International President (1991–92)
An invaluable endorsement