2009.10.27: Obituary for Kenya RPCV Joe Keller
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2009.10.27: Obituary for Kenya RPCV Joe Keller
Obituary for Kenya RPCV Joe Keller
Keller started running while in high school and, after graduating, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He worked as a firefighter at Rescue 2 in Brooklyn and was there for 20 years before moving to the area from Staten Island. He ran seven miles back and forth to the station and was a well-established distance runner by the time he arrived in Ulster County. Keller was one of the charter members of the New York Road Runners Club and a co-founder of the Millrose Games. In his running career, Keller completed over 30 marathons, including the Boston Marathon, and hiked 1,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. "It's unbelievable what he accomplished in his lifetime," Smith said. "He defined dedication to the sport and was also a great friend of the Irish community." Keller served in the Peace Corps from 1971-73 in Africa and helped coach Kenyan distance runners for the Olympic Games and other prestigious international races. When he returned, he started his first go-round as the cross country coach at Coleman Catholic.
Obituary for Kenya RPCV Joe Keller
Keller leaves lasting legacy
Published: Tuesday, October 27, 2009
By Eric Houghtaling
Longtime Coleman cross country coach Joe Keller will leave a lasting legacy in the running community. Photo provided.
KINGSTON - The area running community lost one of its founding fathers Sunday, as Joe Keller, coach and pioneer of the sport, died at the age of 90.
Keller made his mark on local running as a coach at John A. Coleman Catholic High and a founder of many road races and the Onteora Runners Club.
He inspired youth to join in what was not a popular sport at the time in the 1970s, advanced running to the mainstream and reached out regularly to help anyone in need.
Jim Kelley Smith, one of those Coleman runners who benefited from Keller's wisdom, shared his feelings about the passing of his longtime coach and friend.
"I was very close to Joe and knew him for 33 years," Smith said. "He was an inspiration to many and did whatever he could to promote running and having fun. He did so much in his life and he's been like a dad to me."
Keller started running while in high school and, after graduating, served in the U.S. Army during World War II.
He worked as a firefighter at Rescue 2 in Brooklyn and was there for 20 years before moving to the area from Staten Island.
He ran seven miles back and forth to the station and was a well-established distance runner by the time he arrived in Ulster County.
Keller was one of the charter members of the New York Road Runners Club and a co-founder of the Millrose Games.
In his running career, Keller completed over 30 marathons, including the Boston Marathon, and hiked 1,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
"It's unbelievable what he accomplished in his lifetime," Smith said. "He defined dedication to the sport and was also a great friend of the Irish community."
Keller served in the Peace Corps from 1971-73 in Africa and helped coach Kenyan distance runners for the Olympic Games and other prestigious international races.
When he returned, he started his first go-round as the cross country coach at Coleman Catholic.
"I was very fortunate to have been one of his runners at Coleman," said Rich Gromek. "He was way ahead of his time and had us better prepared than so many other schools. Besides being my coach, he was a longtime friend."
Keller's teams prospered thanks to his training techniques and many of those Statesmen teams won Ulster County Athletic League championships.
"He was the best coach out there," said Fred Perry, another former Coleman runner. "He was my mentor and I use a lot of the techniques that he used with the kids I coach now. We always respected him and he was an all-around good man."
Some of those techniques were unorthodox and unique for the time, but seem commonplace today.
"He was a tough coach and you did things his way," said Armand Benincasa. "What I remember best were the Sunday runs with the Tillson contingent from Coleman.
Joe would get us in his pickup truck and we'd be off to Minnewaska for a 10-12 mile run, then back to his house for a full breakfast to replace what we just ran off. One thing you always knew was that you were going to be in peak shape with Joe as your coach."
One of Keller's coaching rivals was Bernie Stahl, the cross country coach at Onteora.
The battles fought between their two teams over the years created a mutual respect that lasted nearly 40 years.
"Joe was definitely the best distance coach in the Hudson Valley," said Stahl. "His Coleman teams were always good and we could never beat them. The kids respected what he was doing and his object was to keep them in the sport. He was one of a kind."
Keller left Coleman to coach SUNY New Paltz cross country in 1976 and was replaced by current Catskill coach Ed Synan.
Keller returned in 1978 when Synan left to coach at Marlboro and stayed at Coleman until 1982.
"It was a challenge to keep up the success he started," Synan said. "He did a lot for the sport and for Coleman. Everything he did, he did with enthusiasm and love and I think that's been returned. In the end, he definitely got all he could out of life."
Also in the 1970s, Keller, Stahl, Dick Vincent and Barry Hopkins came up with the idea of starting a running club.
The four men were the official founders of the Onteora Runners Club and after that came Keller's crowning glory, the summer cross country series.
"After we got the club going, Joe decided he wanted to do something to keep kids running over the summer," Stahl said. "That's when he started the series and instead of just the kids, it appealed to everyone. He wanted the series to be fun, challenging and affordable for anyone."
The series started at SUNY New Paltz, then moved to other venues like Williams Lake, the Mohonk Preserve, the Rail Trails and any other place where Keller could design a course.
"What I remember best was when the series was at the college that we would all go over to Joe's house afterwards," said Vincent. "He had a rope swing that would take you right over the Wallkill River and he'd be the first one on it."
"I don't think I ever missed one of those races," said Perry. "Joe was famous for his awards, handmade beer mugs, and I think I've got about nine of them."
"He was very proud of the series," said Gromek. "He'd take us all over to run those races and no course would ever be the same. We learned to appreciate the Hudson Valley."
Keller was also the founder of the 4-mile Rosendale Plains Run and the gritty Viking Run 10k that normally took place between Christmas and New Year's Day.
"He was our grand marshal a few years ago," said current Rosendale Plains Run director Chris Peone. "He had running in his blood, but took it to another level and really lived it as a lifestyle. I remember one winter he wanted the fire department to wet down Mountain Road to make the Viking Run tougher. He wanted tough guys running that race."
That toughness could sometimes turn gruff, but Keller would rarely hold a grudge.
"Joe would argue with anyone and usually you let him go for 48 hours and everything would be fine," Smith said.
"He'd scuffle with anyone and he told it like it was," Benincasa said. "You never had to guess what he was thinking."
"No one talked during a team meeting while he was talking," Perry said. "He'd find that little piece of fat on your belly and grab it and you'd have to say three Hail Marys before he'd let go. You learned quick that he was in charge."
After his high school coaching days were over, Keller still remained close to Coleman. One of the school's athletic awards for the top runner is named after him.
"He meant a great deal to me and to Coleman," said Breda McMahon. "Both my sons, Kevin and Brian, were coached by him.
His wife, Dot, and I were friends and I remained friends with Joe after Dot died. He did so much for the school and he will be missed. The thought of him not being here is very sad, but I know he's no longer suffering."
Keller's health declined steadily over the past few years, though friends like Smith, Gromek, McMahon and Stahl stayed close to his side.
"Up until a little while ago, a bunch of us old timers, including Joe, would get together every couple of weeks," Stahl said. "We always stayed in touch."
"I really missed seeing him this year at the Hooley on the Hudson," McMahon said. "He was a credit to the Irish."
"We got especially closer over the last few years," Gromek said. "I just saw him last Friday and it was sad to see his health fail like it did."
"I'd been staying with him lately and called a priest in a few weeks ago to give him Last Rites," Smith said.
"He was a very spiritual man as well and made it to Mass every Saturday night. Today, I got about 400 e-mails from people whose lives he touched. He was a great man."
Keller's wife and his daughter, Kathleen, died previously.
He is survived by two sons, Kenneth, of Pennsylvania, and Lawrence, of Alabama, along with four grandchildren and three nieces.
The funeral is at 9:15 a.m. on Thursday at George J. Moylan Funeral Home, Inc. in Rosendale. A Mass of Christian Burial will follow at 10 a.m. at St. Peter's Church in Rosendale. Burial with full military honors will be in the Rosendale Plains Cemetery.
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