Russellville Citizen of the Year ‘a great guy’

By Tammy Keith Originally Published February 17, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 15, 2013 at 10:24 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Don Keaster holds his 2012 Citizen of the Year plaque, presented by the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce at its annual banquet. Keaster, who said he “had a bug” that night, attended because he thought his son was the one being honored.

Russellville Citizen of the Year - Don Keaster

Don Keaster talks about his surprise of being given the Russellville Citizen of the Year award. (By Rusty Hubbard)
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There are two myths about Don Keaster that it’s time to clear up: He’s not an Eskimo, and he doesn’t have a steel plate in his head.

It is true that he was named 2012 Citizen of the Year in January by the Russellville Area Chamber of Commerce.

“They told me Jeremy (his son) was going to get the award — he works with the chamber a lot. I fell for the deal that it was for him,” Keaster said.

When the winner’s accomplishments were read, “I realized it was for me, and I was caught,” he said, laughing. “It just blew me away.”

Keaster, who retired after a 38-year career in the Russellville School District, did grow up in Alaska.

“At the age of 5, my dad moved us — five boys and a girl — from Montana to Alaska,” he said.

He graduated from high school in Alaska, where he met his wife, Lucretia, whose father was the high school principal.

Keaster enrolled in Missouri Western Junior College in St. Joseph, Mo., to play basketball, then transferred to Arkansas Polytechnic College, now Arkansas Tech University, in Russellville.

He said it was at Missouri Western that he got his first coaching experience working with a team at the Boys and Girls Club in St. Joseph.

He had to sit out a year at

Arkansas Tech, and the next year, he didn’t make the basketball team.

Former Arkansas Tech coach Deward “Dop” Dopson “kind of took me under his wing,” Keaster said.

Dopson made Keaster the manager the first year, and the second year, Dopson put him in charge of intramurals.

Dopson, 83, who lives in Lilburn, Ga., near Atlanta, said of Keaster, “I remember him very well.”

He called Keaster a “hard worker, and particularly in the offseason” in the weight room. “He probably had the strongest legs of any players we had — he could do more repetitions of pushing up a certain amount of weight. He was very eager and willing to learn, and that’s why he’s where he is,” Dopson said.

“I’m just proud of his success, and he’s a good family man, too.”

Keaster had to take a bit of an indirect route to teaching.

“My grade point wasn’t high enough to get into student teaching,” Keaster said. “I had a 2.0, and I think you had to have a 2.5.”

He changed his major from health and physical education to sociology and graduated from Tech in 1971.

Although he wanted to coach, Keaster first joined the Army National Guard in Danville, then worked at Morton’s Frozen Foods in Russellville (now ConAgra) before being hired by the school district.

He got an emergency certification to teach and started in 1972 at Russellville Middle School coaching football, basketball and track.

“I felt like that was what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I think it was just the connection with the kids and my upbringing — I wasn’t a real nice, nice kid,” he said.

“We were country boys. My dad homesteaded — we had 160 acres, and we cleared it and planted crops and raised cows and horses.

“We were kind of roughnecks growing up, and I kind of fit in with a lot of the kids that didn’t have good home lives, and I could relate to them a little more than normal,” he said.

Keaster was known for helping needy students.

“There’s a lot of opportunities you have when you’re teaching. Of course, I worked in the cafeteria — I got to see all the kids,” he said.

“They’d come through and be a dime, 15, 20 cents short. We put together a little fund … a packet so when they were short, we kind of helped them out. You could see kids who needed clothing, and we’d go to the counselor.”

He said when he bought shoes for the basketball team, some sporting goods stores ran specials, buy 10 pairs of shoes, get one free, and other stores sold shoes to him at cost.

“Some I got out of my pocket. I had people who helped. There were a lot of people who helped; all you had to do was ask,” he said.

Keaster, who later was certified to teach, went from the middle school to other coaching positions in the district.

In addition to boys basketball, he coached football, girls basketball, track and tennis.

He retired in 2010 as junior high head basketball coach.

“I felt like I was a teacher and kind of a developer,” he said. “My philosophy is to take all the tall kids I could find and work with them and develop their skill. Some of it worked; some of it didn’t. A lot of tall kids feel clumsy and awkward, and I could always pump them up and make them feel good about that.”

Keaster recalled one particular

student who played basketball at Arkansas Tech after graduating from Russellville High School.

“He wouldn’t have been in basketball if I hadn’t pulled him out of PE class and put him in my offseason class,” Keaster said.

The 23-year-old former student, Garrett Glover of Russellville, agreed.

“He’s the reason I started playing basketball,” Glover said.

“I played as a kid, just Boys and Girls Club, but I had kind of given up sports. He (Keaster) said he always saw me palm a basketball and knew he needed me on his team,” Glover said.

“He walked me straight to the counselor and had my schedule changed. I’m glad he did. I ended up playing three years of college.”

“He’s a great guy,” Glover said, adding that he has “no doubt” that Keaster changed other students’ lives.

Keaster said coaches are

often judged on the wrong kind of success.

“Early coaches are always judged by how many games you win, and I think that’s something — it’s a myth. Coaches should be judged on how many kids they helped and developed,” he said.

Keaster said he encouraged students to make good grades.

“I’d tell kids if they’d get their grades up, I’d put them on the basketball team,” he said. “The important part was to get them to high school and get their grades up and give them a reason to go to high school.”

Keaster, now 65, said he had fun coaching.

“If you went through the Russellville school system, you knew me. I was different,” he said.

“I was crazy — a lot of enthusiasm. I’d give head butts to kids with helmets on — you can’t do things like that anymore.

“It was all in fun,” he said.

Other students would ask him if it hurt.

“For years, they thought I had a steel plate in my head,” he said.

He doesn’t.

A faculty member also liked to tell students that Keaster was an Eskimo.

His father died in the late ’70s at age 59 of lung cancer and emphysema, but Keaster’s 86-year-old mother still lives in Alaska.

He goes back to visit her during Alaskan summers, when temperatures are generally in the 40s and 50s.

Keaster and his wife have three grown children, Chad Keaster, 41, of Morrilton; Jeremy Keaster, 35, of Russellville; and Christina Williams, 25, of Fort Smith. Keaster said he and his wife adopted Christina in 1987 from India. “She was a great fit for us; we wouldn’t trade her for anything,” Keaster said.

He said his sons played sports at Arkansas Tech — Chad, basketball, and Jeremy, football.

Keaster is spending his retirement repairing lawnmowers, taking care of several horses he owns and volunteering. He drives a bus for groups at his church, First Baptist, in Russellville.

“I have a hard time saying no,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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