His light was always on – a tribute to Dr. Patrick Keats

patrick keats

There are certain people in our lives who we unconsciously come to expect will always be there. They are the ones who always have been there. The stable ones. The rock-like ones. The buttresses, who quietly go about the business of holding things together, without ever drawing attention to themselves.

For the very many of us who enjoyed his mentorship and friendship, Dr. Patrick Keats was one of those people.

When I was in Front Royal last summer on business, I met Dr. Keats (I never could call him “Pat”!) for coffee at The Daily Grind. Like all of those who loved him, I was anxious about his health. However, he assured me that the cancer was under control, and we quickly moved on to other topics. After that conversation, I confess I stopped worrying about him. The end, when it came, came with a cruel swiftness. Or so it seemed from afar. And so now we are left in the state of perplexity that comes when a stabilizing structure that we took for granted suddenly vanishes beneath our feet.

As a student at Christendom, I spent many hundreds, probably thousands of hours in Dr. Keats’ company, working with and under him in the capacity of actor in and/or director of many of the school’s plays, on The Rambler, organizing literary nights, and on various other projects. And I have kept in regular contact with him in the 11 years since. Though there are many who knew him much better than I, I think it fair to say that I have enjoyed a solid vantage point from which to observe and judge the man, often under high-stress and difficult circumstances. And what I want to say, and what I desperately wish I had had the opportunity to say directly to him before he left us, is I’m not sure I’ve ever met a kinder, gentler, more generous, loving, level-headed, commonsensical, humble, just, peace-loving and thoroughly good man as Dr. Patrick Keats.

The gift of Dr. Keats’ friendship

Dr. Keats made friends easily, and so inevitably, I suppose, given the amount of time we spent together, we became friends. And yet, though I say “inevitably,” I am still astonished at the fact of this friendship. I remember one time, a year or two after graduation, when I received a note from Dr. Keats, mentioning with gentle reproach that he had not heard from me in some time. I marveled then, and still marvel, that a man with so many responsibilities towards so many people, could spare a thought for just one more former student, one who was so far removed from him in space and time.

Indeed, I imagine that it must be natural, even prudent, for a college professor, subjected to an ever-revolving crop of hundreds of students clamoring for attention, to default to an attitude of respectful, professional detachment, if only to conserve one’s limited emotional energies. Dr. Keats never did. He poured himself out upon his students. This included not just his time, with which – especially prior to meeting Lily and taking on the responsibilities of fatherhood – he was almost recklessly profligate, but also his care, concern and affections. For a remarkable number of his former students, Dr. Keats effortlessly transcended the dividing line between teacher and student, becoming counted as one among their dearest friends.

No doubt this was made possible, in no small measure, by the fact that Dr. Keats at times seemed to have stumbled upon the Fountain of Youth. There was a peculiar, even an uncanny timelessness about him – a characteristic that I was far from the only person to feel and remark on. On more than one occasion I recall debating with fellow students how old Dr. Keats might be. We generally concluded that it was foolish even to venture a guess. I now know that when I was in college, he was in his mid-to-late fifties; however, if I had been asked to take a stab then, my guesses would have ranged anywhere from the mid-40s to the mid-60s. As academic dean and teacher, as disciplinarian and mentor, he commanded respect, and seemed far advanced in age and wisdom over we immature striplings. On the other hand, there was the omni-present playful side to him, the twinkle in his eye, the joke ever on his lips, the hilarious anecdotes about his favourite movie stars, the boundless energy, the willingness to get down in the muck and join in the games and the fun of college life, and the evident pleasure that he took in our company, that made him feel just like “one of us.” Reading through the memories people have been posting on Facebook these past few days, we find stories of Dr. Keats joining in snowball fights, playing good-humoured pranks on fellow professors, being invited to and attending student-led parties held in sometimes-questionable locales, delivering humorous monologues in class, and generally giving the impression of having a rollicking good time…which he was!

When someone we love dies, it is strange what prosaic details suddenly present themselves in an almost unbearably tragic light. It breaks my heart now to think that I shall never enjoy another visit with Dr. Keats in his office in “the quad.” When entering the quad, where the faculty offices are located, his door was the second on the left. Usually his door was left open a crack, even in the middle of winter with snow falling all around – a deliberate gesture of welcome to anyone who might be in need of a sympathetic ear, or advice, or simply in the mood for a friendly chat. In those days, it sometimes seemed as if Dr. Keats’ light was always on, no matter the hour. Many a time, on my way back to my dorm at night, I would swing by his office to see if he was in. Oftentimes, he was. I can vividly remember knocking on his door, and hearing his voice, “Come in!” Once entered, you could always be sure of a thoroughly pleased, slightly mischievous smile, a heart-felt hug, and a jovial, “How the heck are ya!” No matter how busy he might be, he would set aside what he was doing, and urge you to take a seat. Usually, I would have some practical purpose for the visit – a problem with one of the plays, or needed advice about some campus controversy – but these were merely pretexts for the pleasure of a half hour talk about life, the universe, and everything.

Dr. Keats was one of the most level-headed and truly just men I’ve ever known. His numerous leadership roles at the college, combined with his approachable nature, meant that he was often presented with complex and controversial matters. Indeed, very many students, myself included, intuitively went to Dr. Keats in moments of academic or personal crisis, or when we had some complaint to lodge against the college, a professor, or a fellow student. We knew that in his office we could be sure to find a calming and supportive presence, and a fair hearing. And yet, while Dr. Keats always showed (and indeed, felt) unconditional sympathy for the suffering of those in trouble, he never in my experience allowed sympathy to cloud the objective facts of the case. No matter who the complainant might be, he would first offer heartfelt words of comfort, and then listen carefully to their account. Then, however, he would set about systematically investigating the facts, usually deferring judgment until he had spoken with any other involved parties.

Those on “the other side”, too, could expect to receive Dr. Keats’ sympathy, and to have their side of the story heard.  I remember one occasion when someone, frustrated by his methods, accused Dr. Keats of cynically playing both sides in a dispute – a catastrophic failure of interpretation! For Dr. Keats did not play both sides: he legitimately and deeply cared about both sides, but conscientiously sought, and was satisfied with nothing less the truth. Dr. Keats never granted agreement merely for the sake of conversation, or friendship. On the contrary, if, upon concluding his investigations, he determined that there was some fault on your behalf, he would gently, but firmly let you know. Furthermore, Dr. Keats was a great lover of peace: and wherever possible, rather than simply choosing one side or another, as one inevitably wanted him to do, he would work strenuously to find a middle ground, and bring about reconciliation. As I pondered this aspect of Dr. Keats’ character, the words of the psalmist sprang to mind: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed…” (Psalm 85:10)

No two-bit players

Myself and Dr. Keats before a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream

Most everyone knows that Dr. Keats produced or directed almost every play put on at Christendom College during his 27-year tenure (44 productions in total!). I doubt, however, that most people can fully appreciate how exceptionally skillful he was in this role, or what it cost him. The time commitment alone was staggering. Multiple times a week, almost every week, every single semester, for twenty-something years, Dr. Keats attended play rehearsals, which were typically held after dinner. The closer the date of the performance, the later those practices would go, often extending until eleven o’clock or midnight. With rare exceptions, Dr. Keats was there til the bitter end.

In between these rehearsals, Dr. Keats also met individually with the actors to go over crucial scenes or speeches. I vividly remember meeting with Dr. Keats for the first time after I somehow landed the role of Hamlet in my freshman year. I had, rather foolishly, convinced myself that I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing. But as I delivered the soliloquy on which we were working that day, Dr. Keats patiently watched with (rather disconcertingly) a stopwatch in hand. When I finished what I thought a perfectly respectable delivery, he suggested I try again, but that this time I should try to make the soliloquy last for what I deemed an absurdly specific, not to mention lengthy amount of time – almost twice as long as what I had just done! With wounded pride, I tried again. And again. And again.

And then Dr. Keats went through the soliloquy with me, word by word. What did I think that this phrase meant? Had I considered that there were these other possible interpretations? How long did I think I should pause here? What was my character thinking when he said this? Did I see how Shakespeare was using unusual poetic meter in this line to draw attention to a certain subtle irony? What did I plan on doing with my hands here?

Dr. Keats’ method was, as always, supremely gentle and humble, couched in suggestive, rather than imperative terms. But I would be lying if I said I walked away from that first session entirely pleased. I had not expected the Spanish Inquisition, even if, Monty Pythonesque, it involved more comfy pillows than racks. The experience was unnerving, and I wondered if Dr. Keats knew what he was doing.

It did not take long, however, before I saw that by far the best thing to do was to submit with implicit trust to Dr. Keats’ coaching. Dr. Keats got language in a way that very few do: he knew that the right word said in the right way at the right time could transform a lifeless speech or scene into one that left an audience breathless, or doubled over in laughter, or in tears. Over the years, I watched him work his magic with actor after actor, gently coaching, prodding, encouraging, showing, until suddenly one day a speech that we might have heard delivered dozens of times by the same actor suddenly “clicked,” leaving those of us watching in a state of stunned pleasure. When he later entrusted me with the role of assistant director, and then director, I conscientiously modeled my efforts on his: for could I do any better than that?

He could also practice what he preached. I remember one literary night in the library, when Dr. Keats recited the poem The Famine Year by Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother. The poem is about the Irish potato famine. By the time he was finished, our skin was crawling. Dr. Keats did not have the voice of an Ian McKellen, or a Jeremy Irons; but what he did have was an uncanny sense for the cadence and music of language, and a sensitivity to its subtler shades and meanings. I know I’m not alone when I say that  he helped me to understand Shakespeare, and poetry, in a way no one else had ever done.

And then, there was “hell week”. That’s the name affectionately given by theatre-types to the final week before a play opens. For the Christendom Players it involved car-pooling to the theatre in Little Washington, or the local high school in Front Royal, immediately after dinner, and staying until sometimes one or two o’clock in the morning, building sets, fine-tuning lighting, trying on and adjusting costumes, and running difficult scenes over, and over, and over again. It’s a time when tempers flare, oversized egos assert themselves, and insufficiencies are exposed. Hell week is just about the only time that I ever saw Dr. Keats smoke. But it was also where he shone.

I suspect (though I may be wrong) that some of those who met Dr. Keats outside of the theatre setting mistook him for a shy, demure, quiet, and harmless sort of character. The fact is, the man was a powerhouse. Give him twenty-five student actors, a group of novice stage hands, a hodge-podge of set-builders and other hangers on, an unaccountably self-confident student director, and a high-pressure environment, and Dr. Keats could make extraordinary things happen. In the midst of the madness, he was the sea of calm, the steady hand on the rudder. He had a remarkable capacity to assuage egos, to reconcile warring parties, and to motivate and instill confidence when motivation and confidence were needed most. Even with opening night breathing down our necks, and lines still unlearned, and a thousand practical details to sort out, Dr. Keats could spot the actors or stagehands who were struggling in some way, whether personally or emotionally, or simply from the stresses inherent in the business. He would quietly pull them aside, to inquire earnestly after their well-being, to investigate practical solutions, and to offer words of encouragement.

However, let me not give a one-sided picture. Though Dr. Keats is perhaps the gentlest man I’ve ever known, he could also lose his temper. However, so rarely did he express anger, that when he did you could be sure both that it was well-deserved by those at whom it was directed, and that its effect was electric, and immediate. Actors who had sloughed off learning their lines until the last minute quickly got down to business, stage hands who were goofing off behind the scenes stood at attention, and everyone put their hands to the plough. No one wanted to be the one who disappointed Dr. Keats.

In the theatre, nothing escaped his attention. I can vividly remember Dr. Keats prowling the theatre with notebook in hand during hell week, so as to see the action from every possible vantage point. When he saw something that needed fixing, he would note it down for discussion later, or quietly approach the director to offer his suggestions. Dr. Keats also had a truly amazing gift for contriving the little “true to life” details, the final brush strokes on the canvas that might take a dramatic scene from “good enough,” to something that sprang to life with vivid convincingness.

As one friend remarked to me just the other day, for Dr. Keats “there were no two-bit players.” And as my friend rightly pointed out, this was as true in real life as it was on the stage. On the stage, Dr. Keats knew that the convincingness and the detail with which the supporting cast played their parts was as critical to the success of a scene, and the whole play, as the starring roles. And he invested his time accordingly, scheduling one-on-one coaching sessions even with the actors who only had two lines in a single scene, to ensure that they knew that their contribution was valued, and more to the point, that their performance was up to snuff. In life, Dr. Keats never dismissed anyone out of hand as inconsequential or unworthy of his attention: if you were a human being with a beating heart, and in need of a sympathetic ear, you could be sure that Dr. Keats would pause, and listen, and personally invest himself in you and your situation.

He believed in us

In Orthodoxy G.K. Chesterton, with mordant wit, lampoons the emptiness of the phrase, “He believes in himself.” As correct as Chesterton’s critique may be, it has never sat quite right with me. It seems to me, after all, that there is a great deal to be said for the practical power of the bullheaded belief in one’s capacity to do the apparently impossible, even should it fly in the face of the available evidence. In thinking about why Dr. Keats’ mentorship of so many of us was so effective and life-changing, this phrase keeps coming to mind: “He believed in us.” It may seem a trite phrase, a truism, a platitude. But it isn’t. Nor am I the only one to have mentioned this in these past few days. As one of my classmates put it a few days ago, addressing Dr. Keats: “[Y]ou were always there, pulling for me, encouraging me to do weird, crazy, cool things. … When we thought we couldn’t do it, you told us we could.” Dr. Keats expressed, and showed through his actions, a confidence in our powers for which, in many cases, there was scant evidence. He was willing to take risks on us, but more importantly with us. The result, in many cases, is that we rose up to meet the high bar that his faith in us had set.

There is a remarkable humility in this approach. When Dr. Keats selected a student director for the various plays, he allowed him or her enormous creative latitude. He even allowed us to make our own mistakes, despite knowing full well that he could do a better job if he just did it himself. He also welcomed it when the lion’s share of the credit was heaped on the students. In the background, however, he was ever gently guiding, advising, showing, and, only when absolutely necessary, firmly taking things in hand to set them back on their right course. In my last semester at Christendom, I directed the play You Can’t Take it With You. I truly can’t describe the pleasure of working with Dr. Keats. From beginning to end I felt…no, I knew that I enjoyed his complete confidence. And that confidence gave me the confidence to do what in retrospect I see so clearly I was ill-prepared to do, knowing that if I messed up, or failed, he would be there to set things aright. Even at the time, I consciously reveled in the sense of effortless teamwork, the pleasure of untangling difficult problems with Dr. Keats, of knowing that I could hand over to him the “difficult cases” and trust that his coaching would respect my creative vision, but exceed my capacities, and that when the going got rough, he was there to listen, and dole out his supremely-sensible advice. Not once did we have even the slightest disagreement. Directing that play, under Dr. Keats’ direction, was unquestionably the single-most enjoyable experience of my career at Christendom.

As someone I was talking to recently observed, Dr. Keats sometimes even gave his confidence to people who had done little to prove that they deserved it. As a consequence, there were occasions when his trusting nature and generosity were taken advantage of. But, then again, what was the alternative? Cynicism? And besides, he was so forgiving that he seemingly effortlessly forgave and forgot any ways in which he was unappreciated or slighted. I remember one occasion when someone for whom I knew Dr. Keats had done an enormous amount, slandered him. I was furious on his behalf, knowing full well the unjustness of the accusation. But when I spoke with Dr. Keats about it, he simply shrugged it off and made excuses for the individual.

The man of faith

I have said little about Dr. Keats’ faith. On the one hand, he was not one of those who are flamboyantly pious. On the other, it was obvious to those who knew him that his faith was his rock, and that the unfailing gentleness and generosity that he showed to others were, in large part, the natural expression of his deep Christian convictions.

My family’s loyalty to Christendom College was borne out of painful experience. In 2002 my brother, then a student at the college, was in a near-fatal car accident outside the entrance to the college. In the days after the accident, as my brother’s life hung in the balance, the students and professors of Christendom supported my family in ways that we will never forget. At any given time, dozens of students were present in the hospital waiting room, on their knees praying for my brother. One night in the middle of the night, my mother went into the hospital waiting room, only to find Dr. Keats emerging from a sleeping bag on the hard floor to go into the ICU ward to pray by my brother’s bed.

That’s the kind of man he was.

However, there is one episode that drove home for me, more than any other, just how deep that faith went, and how central it was to his life. When I met with Dr. Keats last summer, we talked about many things. But what I remember most of all is him recounting the story of his brother’s reversion to the faith before his death, which I believe happened just last spring. Dr. Keats told me that he viewed his brother, who had been alienated from the Church for over 40 years, as one of the least likely people on the planet to have a death-bed conversion. But one day, after his brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, both of them were at the hospital. A Jesuit priest just happened to walk by, and without warning Dr. Keats’ brother flagged him down and asked to meet with him. That day Dr. Keats’ brother went to confession, and some days later even had Mass said in his living room, with his fireplace mantel serving as the altar. Dr. Keats had tears in his eyes as he recounted attending that Mass, and how he regularly prayed the rosary with his brother before his death. I had never seen Dr. Keats so moved in all the years I knew him. I had known Dr. Keats very well as a teacher, play director, lover of literature and film, and as mentor and friend. But that conversation left indelibly imprinted in my mind Dr. Keats, the man of faith, the lover of Christ. Though I have spoken with him by phone since, I am grateful that that was my final, in-person conversation with him.

I have also said little-to-nothing about Dr. Keats as father and husband. The simple fact is, I was not granted the privilege of seeing Dr. Keats in these two roles at any great length or in any depth. He met Lily in the final year or two of my time at Christendom. At the time, I can remember that many of us were both excited, and profoundly concerned for Dr. Keats: What? This old, set-in-his-ways, thoroughly confirmed (or so it seemed) American bachelor, had met a Peruvian fashion designer on an online dating site, and was now engaged to her? How could this be a good idea? Suffice it to say, those concerns were long ago put to rest. Their love story has been beautiful and inspiring to watch from afar. It was clear to me from our conversations this past decade that Lily had made Dr. Keats exquisitely happy, and that she and the twins meant the world to him. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that when the time came to choose his priorities, he made the right choice, significantly decreasing the amount of time he spent on campus and on the plays in order to focus on his wife and children. I mourn for Lily and the twins: I know what Dr. Keats meant to us who were his friends, and so I can scarcely imagine the magnitude of their loss.

One of Christendom College founder Dr. Warren Carroll’s most oft-repeated catch-phrases was, “One man can make a difference.” For the many former students of Dr. Keats who enjoyed the gift of his unstintingly selfless mentorship and friendship, Dr. Patrick Keats is the embodiment of the truth of this adage. While he was on this earth, his light was always on. Now that he has left us, it seems to me that his light only burns brighter, as we recall and feel inspired to imitate the ways he made this world a gentler, more peaceful, and most Christ-filled place.

Eternal Rest Grant unto him O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.  


Published by John Jalsevac

I am a PhD student in philosophy.

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  1. Thank you for this beautiful and exquisitely comprehensive and accurate portrayal of Pat, John.


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