Reminisce: Keller: ‘Vigorous, informed, involved’ in Lima community

LIMA — For John H. Keller, the question wasn’t why for decades he bothered to participate in Lima Council meetings with such regularity that a citizenship award was named in his honor, but rather why so few of his fellow citizens chose to join him. It was, after all, the place to be heard.

“It isn’t the will of the Lord that things operate as they do in this community,” he told The Lima News in February 1993, following a sparsely attended city budget hearing during which he spoke about the need for funding for the Lincoln Park Railroad exhibit.

Six years later, on March 12, 1999, some 450 of Keller’s fellow citizens showed up at the Veterans Memorial Civic Center to celebrate the 90th birthday of the man The Lima News columnist Mike Lackey called “one of the most remarkable men any of us has been privileged to know.”

Keller’s legacy, Lackey wrote March 14, 1999, is “a lifelong demonstration of how to be a vigorous, informed, involved private citizen, and how much good an ordinary person can do simply by taking seriously his rights and responsibilities. For decades, Keller served organizations as diverse as the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and the city tree commission. He was a regular at public meetings of all kinds.”

“He was always a voice of reason,” Lackey added, “and what a voice — a sonorous basso rising from the back of the hall with measured, deliberate words that always commanded attention and respect.”

Keller wore many hats during his long life — trustee of the Allen County Historical Society, labor negotiator and Socialist candidate for president among them — but by far his favorite was the one emblazoned with the “NKP” of the Nickel Plate (New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad). Keller worked as a brakeman and conductor for the Nickel Plate and its successor, the Norfolk and Western Railway, from 1941 to 1974.

“I can say that after 33 years of train service for a class one railroad, I knew I had lived,” Keller told the News in March 1989 at a party marking both his 80th birthday and his 40 years of service to the historical society. “The operation of equipment was always a challenge and away from the supervision of headquarters, one was rarely bothered.” During his working years, Keller worked on trains between Lima and Bellevue and Lima and Frankfort, Indiana.

Lackey wrote in 1999 that Keller had two great loves in his life: railroads and his wife, Charlotte.

His love of railroads came along first, long before he met and married the former Charlotte Mary Basinger in 1936. In fact, it seemed almost predestined that Keller would be a railroader. “It happened I was born diagonally across the street from the tracks and the passenger and freight station of the Illinois Central Railroad” in Robinson, Illinois, Keller told The Lima News in 1989.

Keller’s father, John G. Keller, who grew up west of Spencerville and was married to the former Rose Holl, was managing an oil wells supply store in Illinois when Keller was born on March 12, 1909. When Keller was about one and a half years old, his father returned to Allen County to work in the car shops of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Lima.

Keller graduated from Lima Central High School in 1927. During his youth he worked as a delivery boy for the Welker Grocery in the 800 block of West North Street near his boyhood home and served as president of the Allen County Wheelmen bicycle club. He went on to Bluffton College, where he met Charlotte, the daughter of a Richland Township farmer with whom he would have a son, John D. Keller.

After leaving Bluffton College, he attended Garrett Theological Seminary at Northwestern University. Keller, however, was not cut out for life as a Methodist minister. “His views were a little bit more liberal. It would have made it difficult to be a Methodist minister,” his son told the Toledo Blade in September 2002. “Dad was interested in religion, but he was not a candidate to be a minister.”

He was much more interested in the plight of the working man. “Keller spent 33 years as a brakeman and conductor with the Nickel Plate Railroad and the Norfolk & Western Railroad,” The Lima News noted in September 2002. “It was there and through his father’s experience as a railroader and union man that he developed his union values. A card-carrying Socialist, Keller made it his personal mission to fight for the working man, friends said.”

Keller served several terms with the grievance committee of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and later was a member of the United Transportation Union. When Keller ran for Lima Council in 1933, the News described him as “an organizer for the local Socialist Party.” In 1949, he was a candidate for governor on the Socialist ticket, apparently because no one else would run and Keller felt someone should. Among his heroes were the Socialists Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs.

Of his praise for Thomas and Debs, Lackey in 1999 noted, “Nobody else could get away with that in Allen County. But nobody holds John Keller’s politics against him because he doesn’t hold theirs against them.”

Besides, there was so much more to Keller than his politics. He became a trustee of the Allen County Historical Society in 1948, serving until 1999 when he became a trustee emeritus. He was instrumental in obtaining many of the railroad artifacts and in gathering collections on labor history and socialism at the Allen County Museum. He also was instrumental in developing the Lincoln Park Railroad Exhibit, comprised of Nickel Plate Engine 779 and tender (the last steam engine produced at the Lima Locomotive Works), a railroad car and a caboose. He was caretaker of the exhibit for more than three decades.

“My daily affairs include morning worship at Lincoln Park,” Keller joked in 1989.

Keller also was a member of the Men’s Garden Club, Audubon Society, Shade Tree Commission, and Izaak Walton League. He was a member of the League of Women’s Voters, the Allen County Humane Society, and a former member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He also was a walking reference book on Lima history, railroad or otherwise, working with several authors. In the dedication to his 2002 book on the Lincoln funeral train, author Scott Trostel wrote of Keller, “Each day he set out to accomplish something or to be actively involved in making his hometown a better place. He taught us how important every person in all walks of life really are. He touched us one and all. We are all better for his time with us.”

The 93-year-old Keller died at his Woodward Avenue home on Sept. 6, 2002. Two days earlier, The Lima News wrote on Sept. 8, he was “making plans to attend things. His stops included the Allen County Museum and the United Way.” Charlotte Keller had died Dec. 12, 1980.

In 2004, the Lincoln Park exhibit was officially renamed the John H. Keller Memorial Lincoln Park Railway Exhibit. Those interested in studying Lima’s railroad history can do so at the Allen County Museum’s John H. Keller Railroad Archives where a “cardboard Keller,” a cutout used at the real deal’s 90th birthday party, greets visitors.