The Most Interesting Man in Lexington
By Joe Beeby
David A. Keeling is a man most all students know, by appearance, if not by name. You might see him, bearded, walking through campus, cigar in hand, scarf tucked neatly into his tweed blazer – perhaps engrossed in a book in Leyburn, or sitting idly on the Colonnade. You’ve probably wondered, “Who is he?” A professor? An Indiana Jones type? No, maybe more like Hemingway. You wouldn’t be correct, but you wouldn’t be far from the truth.
Keeling is a writer, painter, conservationist, and alumnus of Washington and Lee. Born in Jamaica in 1949, and schooled in England, Keeling arrived in Lexington to attend W&L after rejection from Cambridge. “To America with ye, boy” were his father’s words. Washington and Lee became Keeling’s destination at the behest of his half-brother, a fellow General. Keeling skated through his W&L education with ease. After the rigor of English schooling, Washington and Lee was far from a challenge. In his own words, “W&L was a great experience, but it did not prepare me well for life." Nonetheless, Keeling enjoyed his time as a student in Lexington, creating close friendships with his classmates. Following graduation in 1973, he traveled to Nicaragua where he started a fishing business. “I just lost my father’s money," he said of the venture that would ultimately fail.
With no success, Keeling returned to Jamaica where he met his wife. But he would not remain in Jamaica long. “In the mid ‘70’s in Jamaica we had a terrible government, a socialist government led by Michael Manley and he was very close to Fidel Castro in Cuba. Crime increased, and investment fled, the middle class fled.” In the wake of an oppressive government, Keeling decided to leave with his wife and unborn son and plant his young family in America.
Unfortunately, the marriage would not last more than two years. So once again, Keeling found himself back in the Shenandoah Valley. “I came back to Lexington in 1980 or ’81. And I started painting actually.” Shortly after, Keeling partnered with the University Book Store and began selling his prints and paintings. “They were very good to me. We did a promotion to all the alumni – three or four we did. And I sold a lot of prints – probably over three thousand over a period of about 10 years.” In 1985, Keeling obtained a masters degree from Thunderbird School of Global Management, the first American graduate school to train students exclusively for international business and foreign affairs. During this time, Keeling lived all over Lexington proper and Rockbridge County, sometimes returning to Jamaica for varying lengths of time. Between personal friendships, physical proximity, and his partnership with the bookstore, Keeling has continued to maintain close relationships with students, faculty, and staff alike.
The close relationship between Keeling and his alma mater remained positive and productive until the year 2000. As president of Washington and Lee, John Elrod oversaw the institution of SAFE PLACE, a program aimed at the acceptance of LGBTQ students at W&L. The organization, sponsored by university administration, circulated stickers bearing the SAFE PLACE and W&L logos together across campus. “They distributed those to every faculty and staff [member] and asked them if they would stick them on their front door. It offended a lot of people; because a lot of people, of course, are going to welcome any student, but if they’re devout Christians they’re not going to promote homosexuality and they’re not going to say ‘It's okay.’ So on the one hand those people I know, who were that way, couldn’t stick it on their door because they did not approve of the act – the lifestyle – but, of course, they wanted to encourage any student in any way. So they were in a really difficult position." To Keeling, this was a disturbing departure from how the university had historically conducted itself.
The administration’s desire for fair treatment of students who identify with the LGBTQ umbrella was not the issue. Rather, Keeling’s concern arose from the administration’s forcible enactment of the program and its subsequent unwillingness to publicize it. “News about SAFE PLACE was not being published, probably because the administration feared it would offend some alumni.” It was the first time Keeling had “ever seen W&L have an official program like that and hide it." The university’s decision to omit the program from school publications – the omission of truth – he felt, was a dishonest act. Keeling made it his mission to urge the administration to publicize their own program. The university appeared to be hiding its own actions for the benefit of keeping its alumni (and investors) satisfied. “I spoke to the Director of Publications, I spoke to the Alumni Director, I spoke to anyone who would let me, and finally I had to confront them in Lee Chapel –I told three hundred of the most senior alumni [about SAFE PLACE]."
Keeling was solely asking for honesty and transparency, principles that we, as students, strive to uphold every day. He urged, wrote, and argued for years with little success. He received encouragement from faculty and staff alike, who felt they could not voice their opinions honestly to their employer. Keeling felt honor-bound and obligated to continue the fight, as he was in a unique position of security and his livelihood did not depend on the university. On one occasion, a university president (whom Keeling would not name), gave his word that he would work to publicize the program. However, months passed with no word. Later, another president was at least honest enough to snidely tell Keeling, “We don’t want to do that, now do we, David” in fear of agitating the alumni base. Finally, in 2006, the program was publicized – six years after its creation. But the results were disappointing. The article, published in W&L’s alumni magazine, downplayed the role of the administration in the program and did not feature it as prominently as Keeling had hoped. “Nonetheless I was glad that alumni had some information, and hopeful… since the article appeared soon after President Ruscio took office.” While the publication of the program in the alumni magazine was certainly a success for transparency and honesty, today the program remains nonexistent on the university website – despite its active status.
But the plot thickens. Since his continued conflict with the university administration, Keeling has experienced unfair treatment from the school. About eighteen months ago, Keeling asked permission to use university research facilities “to work with a professor in developing a course for students." He was denied access to the facilities, and was subsequently informed that a prior project involving the scanning of university-owned photographs would also be barred. Keeling believes that the university’s actions were in response to his dissenting opinions. The incident is certainly troubling for the integrity of an institution that relies on the free and open exchange of ideas.
The conflict has progressed most recently in a series of events following the renovation of DuPont Hall. Keeling acquired a historic lectern from the auditorium of the building when it was emptied for renovation last spring. This artifact was donated to Washington and Lee in memoriam of a deceased alumnus. The deceased’s former rowing teammates, including the powerful Bob Huntley and Roger Mudd, gave the podium to the school in his honor. While the university would like to reacquire the podium, President Ruscio and his Senior Assistant Jim Farrar have refused to meet with Keeling to discuss the terms of its return. Once again, Keeling believes this to be retaliation for his words of criticism. It is disappointing that the administration of Washington and Lee would behave in such a petty manner inconsistent with our beloved Honor System.
In spite of all this, David Keeling remains as active in the W&L community as possible, continuing his endeavors in painting and writing. Given his extensive history with the university, his perspective is valuable to both faculty and students.
Keeling’s opinion on the recent Confederate Flag controversy in Lee Chapel is insightful and reasonable. Admittedly, his feelings on the topic are “mixed”. “I like to see people express their opinions freely; if they want to fly the flag, well they ought to be allowed to do that." However, he did not mind seeing the flags taken down and removed permanently. This, he draws from R. E. Lee himself. Lee believed that, having lost the American Civil War, former members of the Confederacy should put down their weapons, stow their flags, and work to mend their injured country. Even Lee’s funeral notably featured no flags of the Confederacy. “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,” were Lee’s words when he declined to contribute to a Confederate Gettysburg memorial in 1869. Keeling, and any defender of liberty, would fight for an individual’s right to fly these flags. However, in accordance with Lee’s own beliefs, we honor him best in the removal of Confederate artifacts from his final resting place and the chapel named in his honor.
David Keeling’s contributions to Washington and Lee are numerous, perhaps invaluable. His opinions and perspective, along with those of his fellow alumni, require the attention of current students and faculty. If we are to progress as an institution, we must learn from our past, keeping the good, and discarding the bad. But above all, we must remain true to our code of honor. Our alumni are essential to maintaining this high standard. Once we begin to block their opinions, or censor our own actions, we lose touch with the Honor System and our identity as a university.