Warren V. Keller
The following article is based on the book A Man of the Twentieth Century: Recollections of Warren V. Keller, A Nebraskan, by Rosemarie Keller Skaine and James C. Skaine. Copyright 1999, Author’s Castle.
Born on January 29, 1900, Warren Valorous Keller saw the coming of the automobile, airplane, and travel to the moon and beyond; television, radio, and computers; refrigerators, dishwashers, and microwave ovens; indoor plumbing, heating, and cooling; antibiotics, heart surgery, and the mapping of the human genome.
Warren loved people and spent most of his 99+ years in service to family, church, and the general public. Pastor John Russell of St. Pauls Lutheran Church in Grand Island, Nebraska, summed up Warren’s life this way, “…it was necessary for [Warren] to join the work force when he was a young boy, and he stayed in the work force until he was 83 years old – long after most people not only stopped work but stopped living as well. This says something about his determination to always explore new opportunities and to be open to new possibilities.”
Warren was born in Mason City, Nebraska, in a one-room sod house that was typical of the times (click here to learn more about sod houses). The floor was dirt and the beds rested on boards so they wouldn’t sink into the ground. In the summer, his mother would sprinkle water over the floor to settle the dust. The water supply was some distance from the house, as was the privy. And he really did use the Sears and Roebuck catalogue in lieu of toilet paper.
Mason City Nebraska in 1900
“My parents were good people,” said Warren in his memoir, A Man of the Twentieth Century. “My mother was a quiet, religious woman. She never advised me about anything. I guess she left that to Dad, who hardly ever talked. So what I learned, I learned on my own.
“I had about three blocks to go to school, and our folks would dress us up with plenty of clothes. We walked to school. They never took us… Even if it was blizzarding, the folks paid no attention… In 1915, when I was in the 10th grade…school closed for six weeks because of an outbreak of smallpox. When it reopened, I went back…for two days and they said I had verloid – it was some kind of a reaction to the shot they gave me for smallpox. School didn’t seem worth it. I went home. I told my mother and she said, “There’s the washing machine handle.”
Warren saw his first car when he was nine years old. “It was an old Rambler with a two-cylinder engine crossways. You had to crank it on the side. It didn’t have anything but a buggy seat, no top or sides. You guided it with a lever instead of a wheel. It would probably go 15 miles an hour, if that fast… I grew to love cars and loved to travel in them.”
When he was 17, Warren went to work for Allied Contractors and built bridges all over Nebraska, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and Wyoming. “In the early fall of 1923, after we had gotten the Green River [Wyoming] bridge built, two friends and I bought an old Model T ford Touring car for about $60. We wanted to drive it from Wyoming to Nebraska… In many places in Wyoming, Highway 30 was not much more than a wagon trail… At times…the road would disappear into the sagebrush and, at times, we had to follow the railroad tracks by driving in the ditch alongside… When we got to Cheyenne, we had to overhaul the car’s engine… When we got to Grand Island, one of my friends was picked up by the FBI. I don’t know what he did.”
Warren bought his first new car, a Model T Roadster, for $425 in early 1926. Shortly after, he began dating Marie Kuehner and they were married on December 24, 1926. “We did a lot of socializing,” said Warren, “and we took trips in the Model T. We probably put 500 miles on the car each month… We’d go out in the country and drop in on people. Everybody did it. You didn’t have to make an appointment to see people. You just went. If they were doing chores, you’d pitch in and help and then maybe stay for supper.”
Warren’s love of traveling continued until he was well into his 90s. At the age of 94, he took a trip with his daughter, Rosemarie Keller Skaine, to the Keller Homestead in Virginia, and in 1995, he flew with her to Washington D.C to visit the Keller homestead a second time.
Although Warren loved to see the countryside and meet new people, he wanted to set down roots and have a place to come home to. “My dad,” said Warren, “moved from one house to another a lot; I don’t know why. But it made me not want to move again.” From 1937, until he died in 1999, Warren lived in the same house in Grand Island – one he built himself and the last house in the city to have its foundation dug out by a team of horses.
Warren had a talent for getting along with people. In the late 1930s he went to work for the city collecting unpaid electric bills. “I liked to see what I could do to help if they had problems paying their bills… I always knew when to let the farmers not pay their bills. They could only pay when they had something to sell, either their crops or their livestock… The city never lost any money because I gave farmers extra time to pay.”
Warren joined St. Pauls Lutheran Church in 1936 and became an avid and life-long volunteer. “When we were children,” he said, “we were on the [receiving] end and I felt empty… Volunteering…makes life most satisfying.” At the age of 96, he completed a nine-month ministry training course and at 99, he could be found every afternoon at a retirement home wheeling the “old people” around in their wheelchairs.
Warren died on October 9, 1999, just shy of a century of living. He experienced a remarkable 100 years of our nation’s development and yet, held fast to the simple values that he’d been raised with. Warren and Marie had two children, William Henry “Bill” (August 15, 1930 – July 19, 1980) and Rosemarie (June 11, 1936 –).