Fred Keller: A Man For All Seasons

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Sussex man a walking storybook – History `geek’ Keller earns respect of many for his knowledge of Waukesha County

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel – Thursday, January 1, 1998

Readability:10-12 grade level (Lexile: 1180L)
Author: Special to the Journal Sentinel

“Whenever I think of Fred Keller , I think of Sussex ,” said Sussex Village President Pat Bartlett.

Bartlett isn’t alone.

Keller , 66, is the longtime local historian who shares his knowledge with school and civic groups, and anyone else who will listen.

Keller ‘s years of efforts were rewarded when the State Historical Society of Wisconsin recently gave him its Local History Award.

Keller is chairman of the Waukesha County Historical Society’s historical markers program. He has been leading an effort to place a variety of historical makers in the county, from one at an American Indian mound site near Big Bend to the birthplace of author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, Caroline, in Brookfield.

Years ago, Keller surveyed the county and found 40 historical markers — a number he didn’t think adequately represented Waukesha County’s rich history.

Thanks in part to his efforts, there are now 47 markers now in Waukesha County. All are made of wood, except for two that are made of bronze. One of the bronze markers dates to 1916, when it was installed at Lapham Peak. The other bronze marker is in Waukesha at the grave of Lyman Goodnow, an abolitionist.

“We don’t do things in haste,” noted Keller of the historical markers committee. “It could be as little as one year or up to three to five years for a marker to be approved.”

Last year, Keller had the historical marker at Menomonee Falls’ St. James Catholic Church refurbished and rewritten for the church’s sesquicentennial.

While he’s a member of St. James, Keller is also an honorary member of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, which is just a short walk from his back door.

“I have a key to (St. Alban’s), because so many people who come to me want to hear about the church and its history,” he said.

One day when Keller led a tour group of women through the church, which was built in 1864, the pastor handed him the key and announced he was an honorary member.

“I have so many doors that are open to me,” said Keller .

He formerly worked for the Public Works Department inSussex , and later became superintendent of the Parks and Recreation Department for the community. Under his tenure, parks in the Sussex area increased from three to 11.

It was during the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 when Keller was doing a series of historical articles that the Village Board “realized I was a historical geek who knew everyone and everything around here,” said Keller , chuckling.

So, he was appointed village historian.

It was his aunt Agnes Hallbach, a teacher in the area, who turned him on to history.

“I went across the nation with her by bus in 1946 — when I just turned 14,” he recalled.

His aunt also had a friend, George New, a navigator in World War I.

“I’d sit on his lap and wind him up so he told me stories about the war,” said Keller .

When the 6-foot-5-inch Keller enrolled at Marquette University on a basketball scholarship, he knew he wanted to be a history teacher and play basketball.

But in 1952, his plans were cut short and he went into the Army during the Korean War, ending up in Europe.

By the time he returned to Sussex , he married his sweetheart, June, and ended up working in his father’s business — Sussex Mills.

In 1977, Keller grew tired of the long days at the mill and sold out to his partner. He then turned his attention to the village and history.

Though he retired from the village in 1993, he still coordinates various recreational events for the village.

Though a stroke in 1988 curtailed some of his activities, he still covers sports and shoots photographs for the Sussex Sun newspaper.

This past year, the Sussex Fire Department dedicated their 75th anniversary book to Keller , who is a retired volunteer firefighter Caption: Photo JEFFREY PHELPS STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Fred Keller stands next to a historical marker at St. James Catholic Church, Menomonee Falls, on Christmas Eve.

Where there’s smoke, there’s . . . popcorn?

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel- Thursday, April 20, 1995

Readability: >12 grade level (Lexile: 1410L)
Author: Betsy Thatcher

The Journal Sentinel staff

Sussex When the smoke cleared at Village Hall, there was a bag of burning cheese popcorn floating in a toilet and a guy with one very red, balding head.

Smoke billowing through the historic building at N64-W23760 Main St. last week caused an evacuation and brought the Fire Department’s screaming emergency vehicles.

Firefighters raced to the second-floor men’s room only to discover a smoldering bag of microwave popcorn.

Fred H. Keller , who writes the “Bald Facts” column for the Sussex Sun and is recreation program coordinator for the village, had placed a bag of cheese-flavored popcorn in a microwave oven on the second floor and walked away.

Apparently lost in his work last Wednesday, Keller forgot about the cooking kernels until smoke began filling the air, Village President John H. Tews said.

Keller ran to the oven, grabbed the smoldering, smoking bag and raced to the men’s room, along the way filling Village Hall with even more smoke, Tews said.

The smoke set off alarms, causing Deputy Clerk Sue Freiheit, unaware of Keller ‘s plight, to instruct the staff to close the safe, shut off the computer system and evacuate the building, Tews said.

Once outside, someone ran to an adjacent building and called 911, he said.

Keller , meanwhile, tried to contain the smoldering bag by stuffing it in a toilet, only to discover that cheese-flavored popcorn floats, Tews said.

At that point, firefighters burst in and extinguished the embers.

“No damage or injuries were sustained, except for Fred ‘s very red face and bald head and perhaps bruised ego,” noted Tews.