James L. Keen, a father of 12 who served for nearly a dozen years on the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education, died at the age of 85 on July 30, 2016 at his longtime home on Millbridge Road in Riverside.
Mr. Keen served on the RBHS board from 1978 to 1989 and was both a champion of education and a critic of education policy, writing with some frequency about the topic in letters to the newspaper. His last, which appeared in the Landmark in late March, argued for the inclusion of a “moral and ethical component” in public school curriculums.
“These are very important and we ignore them at our peril,” Mr. Keen wrote.
Born on March 2, 1931, Mr. Keen grew up on a farm in Letcher, South Dakota. He attended Dakota Wesleyan University for two years before transferring to the University of South Dakota, where he earned a degree in chemistry and was inducted in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
He won a fellowship to study at Purdue University, but those plans were cut short by the U.S. Army, which drafted him during the Korean War. But, he served just a brief time in the Army before obtaining a discharge to help his mother operate the family farm after the death of his father.
The family farm would remain an important part of Mr. Keen’s life. Even after moving from Letcher, he would visit the farm monthly and spend his vacations from work there, according to his wife of 62 years, Irma (nee Krier).
The couple met through mutual friends while Mr. Keen was still in college. Irma lived in Mitchell, South Dakota, where Dakota Wesleyan was located. The two married in 1955 and moved to Minneapolis, where Mr. Keen landed a job as a research chemist with General Mills.
While at General Mills, Mr. Keen registered 20 patents. Meanwhile, between their marriage in 1955 and the time the family moved to the Chicago area in 1969, the Keens had 11 children. One more would be born after the move.
The relocation to Riverside was prompted by Mr. Keen accepting a job at Corn Products International. He stayed with the company until the early 1990s and retired in 1996.
According to Irma Keen, her husband began to get involved locally almost immediately. Mr. Keen served on the St. Mary School board and was involved as a coach and manager for many Riverside Little League teams.
But Mr. Keen saw education as particularly important. While in Minneapolis, according to his wife, Mr. Keen advocated for public funding of transportation for students attending Catholic schools in the area.
He later made his mark on the Riverside-Brookfield High School board, emphasizing to his children the importance of education and the need to be involved.
“He always stressed education to all of us,” said his son, Dr. John Keen, a physician who currently serves on the RBHS District 208 Board of Education. “I think he instilled the importance of education and that’s what he tried to give back to the community.”
Mr. Keen was an avid reader and consumer of news, reading three newspapers – the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times “front to back” every day, according to Irma Keen.
Family also played a prominent role in Mr. Keen’s life. In addition to 12 children, Mary (Chuck) Kirchoff, James E. (Connie), Richard (Diane), John (Kathy), Tom, Dan (Christine), Carolyn (Stephen) Gedney, Ken (Fiona), Janice, Joyce, Doug (Julie) and Bill Keen, he had 35 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He was also a brother to Sharon (Dean) Beedle, Brian (Brenda) Keen, the late Robert Keen, and the late David Keen.
“He was definitely family first,” Irma Keen said.
Visitation will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 3 from 5 to 9 p.m. at Ivins/Moravecek Funeral Home, 80 E. Burlington St. in Riverside. A funeral Mass will be celebrated on Thursday, Aug. 4 at 10:30 a.m. at St. Mary Church, 126 Herrick Road, Riverside.
Memorial donations are appreciated to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights at www.catholicleague.org.