Jul 14, 2023
Limestone legend: The artful dodger and other tales of Gene Keith
It’s afternoon and after a day of spelling, math and reading, the sound of a squeaky wheel grows louder and then it stops. The classroom door opens and, at last, the students see the cart appear and
It’s afternoon and after a day of spelling, math and reading, the sound of a squeaky wheel grows louder and then it stops. The classroom door opens and, at last, the students see the cart appear and then their beloved art teacher – Mr. Gene Keith.
For more than 34 years, Mr. Keith taught the elementary students of Athens City Schools art and instilled in his students that above all else, art should be fun. and with Mr. Keith, that was always the case. His patience and ability to spark joy in all his students while inspiring them to create makes him a true Limestone Legend.
Gene Keith was born in Springville, St. Clair County. When his mother moved to Pennsylvania, Keith split his time between living with her and living in Alabama.
He remembered being just 5 years old when his older brother, who had served in the Navy since the Korean War, came home to visit. At the end of their time together, Keith packed up all his clothes in an attempt to go back with his brother. Years later, after high school, Keith joined the Coast Guard.
“It was a time when lots of your friends were being drafted. Some of them that graduated before me where working in plants and were drafted and went over there,” Keith recalled. “A lot of students were deciding to join the service after graduating. Then you think, which branch of service? Coast Guard wasn’t held up there as the most macho, but it was the hardest to get into.”
At boot camp, Keith was tested on a variety of skills — and one proved to be difficult.
“The company commander asked, ‘Is there anyone in here not able to swim,’” Keith said. “I raised my hand and he asked where I was from. I told him Alabama and he asked, ‘They don’t have mud puddles in Alabama?’”
Luckily, Keith had wrestled in high school and was in great shape. He was able to “beat his way” across the water despite being a “natural sinker.”
While serving in the Coast Guard, a strange mixup between the states of Alabama and Pennsylvania regarding Keith registering for the draft, when he was 18, once led him to being detained as a “draft dodger.”
“They came looking for me for evading the draft. They detained me for 24 hours until people could come in and verify that I was (already) in the service. I was basically considered a draft dodger while I was in the service,” he said.
As for that service, Keith found he had superb hearing and so became a radio operator. He went to Honolulu, Hawaii, for Pacific Ocean patrols and rescue missions. Finding work was difficult for Keith after the service as radio operators weren’t in great demand.
“Airplane or helicopter mechanic is at Redstone Arsenal making good money. Boiler tenders come out and work for power plants and such. Coming out where you go, ‘da, da, da, do, do, do, da, da, da,’ not a huge need for Morse Code,” he said.
Keith went back to Pennsylvania after his service. He decided to visit his uncle who was a dentist in Hollywood, but stopped in Pueblo, Colo. He got stranded and the man he was renting from helped Keith get back to Birmingham, Ala.
Back home, he went into farming and sold pulp wood at the market on Finley Boulevard in Birmingham. He also owned a gas station for a short time. While there, he also married his wife, Linda, and they soon welcomed their first child. They moved to Florida and then eventually Pennsylvania in an attempt to find work.
“I got to Pennsylvania and one day, I met a former classmate and he said, ‘No jobs in Fayette County,’ and even the coal mines weren’t hiring.”
Keith was encouraged to use his G.I. benefits to enroll at the Penn State branch campus, where he enrolled and pursued art classes. He didn’t set out to be a teacher, but when told he had to declare a major, he chose art education. There he was mentored by his ceramics teacher, Zeljko Kujundzic, from Yugoslavia, who had been captured by the Nazis during World War II, only to escape the labor camp a second time before trekking more than 1,000 miles back to Yugoslavia.
As he neared completing Penn State, Keith began sending out resumes all over Pennsylvania and Alabama and other areas. One day he got an offer to teach in Nicaragua, and later that day, he received a letter from Athens City Schools as they were beginning an elementary art program. He interviewed in Athens and with the position being new, members of the PTA were allowed to sit in on the interview.
Some PTA members had concerns that Keith would leave because Athens was a small town. Keith reminded them of where he was born and how, once, the one traffic light was shot out and never replaced. Satisfied with the answer, Keith was hired and began in 1977.
It didn’t take long for the Keith family, which had grown to three children, to love Athens. He taught art at all the elementary schools in Athens and Athens Middle School. He also taught classes at Athens State for more than 20 years. He taught approximately 60 classes a week at the elementary schools once Brookhill Elementary opened in 1989.
His elementary lessons often began with having the student frame their paper before giving them a basic shape to help them get started. The frame was also a tricky way for Keith to limit the crayon marks left on the students’ desks.
“I didn’t dictate how to draw, say a building. I would show cityscapes and you could make it as complex as you wanted — if you wanted helicopters coming in, or some would even have a building on fire. Just whatever the child was interested in,” he said.
Perhaps the most popular projects involved what seemed like a magic blue, red or yellow liquid in cans that Mr. Keith would dip student’s artwork, giving it a marvelous color effect. What was that mystery liquid? Dippity-dye.
“Dippity-dye, you use an absorbent white paper. Once you do your drawing and the background is plain, I have three cans set up,” Keith said. “I would come by and fold it, put a clothes pin, fold it again, put another clothes pin. They would dip it, hand it to me and I would press it out. It dried quickly and they’d have it dry before the end of the lesson.”
Another favorite was “crayon resist.” Keith would take a foam brush and brush over a student’s crayon drawing with diluted blue food coloring to make the crayon colors pop.
After Keith retired, he spent time creating Tuscany landscapes. A former student, who became an art teacher, encouraged him to make collages with repurposed materials. He made junk metal fish, owls and other works of art. Keith also made handcrafted Santa Clauses and could often be seen at the Fiddler’s Convention with his creations.
Since retirement, Keith has immersed himself in history and genealogy. He enjoys telling stories of the many fascinating historical tales he has learned from digging in the past. On any given day, he can often be found at the Limestone County Archives or Athens-Limestone Public Library doing research.
Limestone Legends is a series that publishes in The News Courier's Limestone Life magazine, a free quarterly publication. Stop by the office to pick up your copy today to read more stories like this one.
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