Remembering Thomas A. Keller III

The attorney became a crucial advocate for the Department of English and the renovation of Pillsbury Hall
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With sadness, the Department of English notes the death of Thomas A. Keller III, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Creative Writing Program’s David E. Edelstein-Thomas A. Keller, Jr. Endowment and went on to be longtime chair of the Department of English Advisory Board.

“Tom Keller was a deep and loyal friend to the Department of English,” says Regents Professor Emerita Madelon Sprengnether. “He was a master of the art of diplomacy, at once keen-witted, gracious, and (above all) persuasive. His love for the written word shaped his vision throughout. Tom was an incomparable advisor, benefactor, and friend.”

“Among the avid supporters of the Department of English, Tom Keller was a towering figure," says Professor and former English Chair (2010-2016) Ellen Messer-Davidow, "arranging for the Edelstein-Keller Endowment that supports the MFA program in Creative Writing, chairing the Advisory Board of distinguished alumni and supporters, and advocating for the renovation of the historic Pillsbury Hall for English. I was intrigued by his graceful leadership and enjoyed his commentaries on literature. He will be sorely missed.”

Establishing the Edelstein-Keller Endowment

A prominent Twin Cities lawyer, Keller humbly called himself “the conduit” between then University of Minnesota President Ken Keller (no relation) and David Edelstein’s sister Ruth Easton in the 1984 creation of the Edelstein-Keller Endowment. The establishment of the endowment transformed Creative Writing and set it on the path to becoming the nationally ranked MFA program it is today.

David Edelstein was the owner of sugar brokerage C. D. Robinson Company and the best friend of Keller’s father Thomas A. Keller, Jr., whom Edelstein had met as a student at the University. Though, according to Keller, Edelstein had faced “virulent anti-Semitism” at the University, he was very generous to the institution. A salesman, Keller, Jr. had a love of literature and was involved in the literary scene of St. Paul; he knew F. Scott Fitzgerald. “His greatest love was the seventeenth-century lyricists,” his son noted in a 2007 interview, “and they are my greatest love in poetry.”

Both Keller’s father and Edelstein had recently died when, as Keller recounted, President Keller approached him to ask if he’d talk to Edelstein’s sister, successful stage actress Ruth Easton, about establishing a chair in creative writing, with matching funds from the permanent University Fund. Easton quickly agreed to endow such a chair in memory of her brother and his friend, “whom she knew and loved for many years.”

Before 1985, the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English had three permanent faculty and offered a two-year creative writing MA in English with little financial support for students. After the endowment was created, then English Chair Kent Bales appointed the late Professor Charles Sugnet as director of Creative Writing. Sugnet worked with Thomas Keller to establish many of the salient features of the Creative Writing Program; he credited Keller for allowing flexibility in the endowment’s use and for being a stalwart supporter of the program.

Edelstein-Keller Endowment funds have been used to bring authors from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Colson Whitehead to campus through the Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer Series. Funds allowed for the hiring of adjunct lecturers and teaching residents—notable authors from the Twin Cities and elsewhere, including Grace Paley, David Treuer, and Kao Kalia Yang. Perhaps most importantly, the fund encouraged Sugnet and other leaders of Creative Writing to dream big, which led to the establishment of still popular undergraduate writing courses, and, ten years later, the MFA in Creative Writing.

“This gift dramatically enhanced the MA in Writing degree in English and provided the infrastructure—and the ambitious programming—that made the MFA degree possible,” says Professor Sprengnether, the MFA program’s first director. “Tom’s gift was prescient; the MFA in Creative Writing now ranks among the highest programs in the nation.”

Advocating for English and the renovation of Pillsbury Hall

In 1996, then English Chair Shirley Garner invited Keller to join the newly created Advisory Board of the English department and serve as its first chair. In this role, he became an early advocate of the renovation of Pillsbury Hall as the permanent home for English, which at the time had been temporarily housed in the College of Science and Engineering building for over 25 years. Keller jump-started this initiative by introducing Professors Garner and Sprengnether to the head of the U of M Foundation and to then President Mark Yudof.

“Tom continued to guide and aid this effort through four separate University administrations,” says Sprengnether. “No one who was not a member of the English department faculty, staff, or student body showed more enthusiasm for this project, nor more joy at its completion.”

The 25-year effort came to fruition in 2021, when the 1889 building re-opened to English students and staff with an elegantly rebuilt interior, thanks to support from a Minnesota State capital project bonding bill and individual donors.

“As a fellow founding member of the English Advisory Board, it was an honor and delight to serve with Tom,” says MA alumnus Bob Gaertner. “What I remember most about Tom was how deeply he cared about the value of a liberal arts education. That, and his always kind regard of his board associates, including me.”

“Tom was an important mentor for me, and it was because of him that I joined the English department Advisory Board and eventually took his place as board president,” recalls current Board Chair and Lerner Publishing Group CEO Adam Lerner. “They are big shoes to fill, but seeing the confidence that Tom had in expressing his perspective encouraged me. I’m sure Tom has impacted many others on a personal level like he has with me. He will be greatly missed.”

“I feel sadder than I know how to say,” says Regents Professor Sprengnether. “There was no one like Tom. He was a kind and good man, and we are forever in his debt.”

The Department of English and the Creative Writing Program are deeply grateful to Thomas A. Keller III for his crucial service and support across decades. Keller is survived by his wife Victoria, a daughter and a son, two nieces, and a sister. Warm condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

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