Remembering Kent Keeth

by Carl F. Flynn, Director of Marketing & Communications for
Information Technology & University Libraries

Today at 10:00 a.m. our former director, Kent Keeth, will be laid to rest at a graveside service at Oakwood Cemetery, just a few blocks away from The Texas Collection. Keeth’s 30 years of leadership charted a course for our library that made The Texas Collection a vital resource for scholars and others interested in the history of Baylor University, Texas history, and the cultural development of Texas.

Keeth was born on August 25, 1938, in Marshall, Texas, to Lonnie and Hazel Keeth. He attended Baylor University and graduated in 1960. He majored in history, but had a wide range of interests and skills, minoring in English, Spanish, philosophy and economics. He went on from Baylor to earn an M.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961 and a Master of Library Science degree from the University of California at Berkeley the following year. From 1962-1964, Keeth organized and began operation of a new library at the Malaysian Teachers College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Then, from 1965-1968, he worked as a reference librarian for the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress. As part of his duties, he performed reference and research services for Members of Congress, Congressional Committees and their staffs. Keeth then returned home to Texas, serving as an archivist for the Eugene C. Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin. On June 1, 1973, at the request of Baylor President Abner McCall, Keeth returned to his alma mater as director of The Texas Collection.

Keeth believed that The Texas Collection should serve as a repository for early Texas history while also having an eye toward researchers years from now who will want to understand Texas culture. Under his direction, The Texas Collection acquired maps, documents and other artifacts that told the story of a time before Texas was a Republic, along with contemporary books, magazines, papers, postcards, photographs – anything that captured Texas as it developed. In addition, The Texas Collection gathered materials that recorded the history of Baylor University, and Keeth quickly became the unofficial historian of the university. In fact, the thing most people associate with Keeth are his “Looking Back at Baylor” articles that regularly appeared in the Baylor Line magazine. Keeth enjoyed researching and writing these articles and his work lives on through The Texas Collection’s online resources as we continue to share his work.

During his directorship, Keeth served as president of the Society of Southwest Archivists (1989), and was a member of the Society of American Archivists, the Southern Historical Association and the Texas State Historical Association. He regularly presented papers as part of these associations, and many of them were about the value of The Texas Collection. Keeth took advantage of every opportunity to extend the reputation of the library through professional meetings and community presentations on both Texas and Baylor history. In 1981, Governor Bill Clements appointed Keeth to the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board, on which he served with distinction for many years.

In 1973 Keeth married Lucy Lee Smith, a fellow librarian at the University of Texas at Austin. They served together at the Baylor libraries and were very active in the Waco community. They helped to establish the Sanger Heights Neighborhood Association in 1984. The Association worked with the City of Waco to implement changes that benefited their neighborhood in north Waco and the city as a whole. Many city officials fought against Keeth’s insistence that the buildings in the area of Lasker and Seneca Avenue on the north, Waco Drive on the south, 15th street on the east, and 26th street on the west should retain their original character and not be supplanted by more modern structures. Because of the influence of the Keeths through the Association, this neighborhood retained its original character and enjoyed improvements made in collaboration with the city. The volunteer efforts of both Kent and Lucy Keeth in their neighborhood and beyond have left a legacy of citizen advocacy and investment to improve the conditions of life for the people of Waco.

Lucy Keeth passed away on July 28, 1999, after two bouts with cancer. After her passing, the Sanger Heights Neighborhood Association established a local garden in her honor and the city proclaimed July 29, 1999, as Lucy Smith Keeth Day. A few years later, in 2003, Keeth announced his retirement from Baylor University. Following his retirement, Keeth continued to support volunteer efforts in the community, including Fuzzy Friends Rescue, Waco Friends of the Library, the YMCA of Central Texas and Mission Waco. He also continued to support The Texas Collection and was a Library Fellow of the Baylor Libraries.

During the past few years, Keeth became a regular at Lula Jane’s on Elm Street in Waco. Meeting friends at Lula Jane’s provided him an opportunity to remain active in the community and engage with old friends.

Kent Keeth passed away at his home on December 29, 2017. A small gathering of his friends gathered on Thursday, January 11, at Lula Jane’s for an informal time of remembrance at the cafe. As noted in his obituary, “Kent believed that being involved in civic and charitable activities was part of being a good citizen, and he always encouraged others to do the same” (Waco Tribune Herald, January 25, 2018). He will be long remembered for his contributions to Baylor University and its Texas Collection and the many ways his volunteer efforts impacted the City of Waco. One of Keeth’s friends, Jimmy Dorrell, who officiated his wife’s funeral, will oversee today’s graveside service.

We will continue to remember our former director by featuring his writings on Baylor and Texas history. However, we will always be grateful for the way that his vision developed The Texas Collection into a resource that continues to support researchers and others who seek to understand Texas history and culture.

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