Seventy-five years ago this week –– on May 31, 1937, to be exact –– the Keys quadruplets of Oklahoma graduated from Baylor University and became the first known quadruplets in history to finish college.
Back when the Keys quads were born in Hollis, Okla., on June 4, 1915, fertility drugs were unknown and multiple births were rarer than they are today. So when Flake and Alma Keys became parents that day, they were shocked to discover that the single child they expected turned out to be four girls, weighing a total of 16 pounds.
Word spread quickly, and during the first three months of the Keys quadruplets’ lives more than 3,000 people traveled to Hollis to see them. Former President Teddy Roosevelt even sent his congratulations by telegraph.
Visitors learned that the Keys quads could be considered two pairs of twins: Roberta and Mona were identical twins, while Mary and Leota were fraternal. Together they joined a household that already included four older brothers and sisters.
Mr. and Mrs. Keys resisted offers to put their girls in a circus or on the vaudeville circuit, and also said no to Hollywood. But the quads did help their parents raise money and stay afloat in those Depression years by appearing at certain events, including annual displays at the Oklahoma State Fair where visitors paid 25 cents to see them.
The Keys quads likely would never have been able to afford college educations had it not been for the intervention of Baylor President Pat M. Neff. Neff was aware of the talented Baptist quartet to the north and recognized the national publicity Baylor could gain by enrolling them. So he offered the Keys quads full four-year scholarships, which they readily accepted.
“It was the Depression, and my father was already going under financially,” Roberta Keys Torn remembered in later years. “We would never have been able to go to college if President Neff hadn’t been long on publicity.”
The Keys quads came to Baylor in September 1933, becoming the first quadruplets ever to enroll at the University. The girls roomed together in a special four-person suite in Women’s Memorial Dormitory and joined the Class of 1937, whose members included future Baylor President Abner McCall.
The quads were good students, and proved that every dollar of their scholarships had been well spent by helping boost Baylor in a variety of ways during their four-year stay. They sang and played their saxaphones together many times for events both on and off campus, and even accompanied President Neff on his appearances around Texas to drum up support for Baylor as well as campaign for prohibition.
But the most memorable trip Neff and the Keys quads took was in May 1936. To encourage people to visit the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas that year, Neff and the four sisters traveled 5,000 miles across the country in a well-publicized goodwill tour. During the tour the Keys Quads appeared on Fred Allen’s Town Hall national radio program, met Vice President John Garner and paid a visit to Canada’s Dionne quintuplets.
The Keys gave the Dionne girls Texas bluebonnet caps, and Neff offered the quintuplets the same Baylor scholarship deal he’d given the Keys quads, even promising their parents they could share the same Memorial Dormitory suite then occupied by the Keys. Alas, the quints would eventually make other plans.
After graduation the Keys quads continued performing together around the country until 1940, when Mona became the first of the women to marry. Her three sisters eventually married as well, and through the years the quads and their families returned to Baylor many times to take part in campus events.
Leota, the last Keys quad to be born, became the first of the group to die in the early 1970s. The oldest quad, Roberta Keys Torn, lived the longest of the four and died at age 96 on Aug. 19, 2011.
(A longer version of this story appeared in the May 2012 issue of Waco Today. Gildersleeve photo is courtesy of The Texas Collection at Baylor University.).