I have not written about my father-in-law, Joe Keith’s, death on June 20 because putting the words on paper makes it real, and it’s still hard to believe he’s gone.
Yes, he was 94 years old. Everyone says he had a good, full life. That doesn’t make the physical absence of such an important part of our family any easier.
The day before he died, he’d been to the Malvern Lions Club and gotten his 65-year pin. He led the singing — as he always did — “with gusto,” someone told the family.
An avid golfer and bridge player — and good at both — Joe played golf the Saturday before he died, and bridge, too. He had a group of longtime friends he played bridge with every Monday night, but this was a group at the senior center.
Joe and my brother-in-law were signed up to play in the Monk Wade golf tournament, a father-son tournament, this weekend. Instead, my husband will play with my brother-in-law in Joe’s memory. Joe and my husband were registered to play in the Joe Keith Malvern National Bank/Malvern Country Club 4-Ball Tournament this month.
You can see why his death was a surprise. We weren’t ready. We weren’t making plans for a funeral; we were making plans for life with him.
The most common comment I heard from people who didn’t know him was, “He was so active!” Yes, he was. He’d contributed a lot to his community of Malvern for almost 70 years. He was a World War II Navy veteran and graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a degree in mechanical engineering. He was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and met his wife, Dorothy, at college. They were married for an amazing 58 years and had four kids; my husband being the youngest.
Joe had owned Keith Chevrolet in Sheridan and worked at a bank before becoming a full-time cattleman, raising polled Herefords.
He’d received the lifetime achievement award from the Malvern-Hot Spring County Chamber of Commerce a few months ago. College of the Ouachitas in Malvern has a room named after him and my late mother-in-law, Dorothy. Countless other people and organizations benefited from Joe’s generosity.
He shared his beautiful singing voice with the choir and congregation at Malvern First United Methodist Church for decades, and he was known for singing a solo, “O Holy Night,” each Christmas season until just a few years ago.
At Joe’s funeral, a recording of him singing that Christmas song, as well as “One Day at a Time” was played. His strong voice, even in his 90s, filled the sanctuary.
The minister, the Rev. Bruce Bennett, gave a wonderful tribute to Joe. Bennett had known Joe some 30 years earlier, then returned to the church a year ago and was happily surprised to see Joe was still part of the choir.
The preacher said Joe didn’t think the church needed an additional parking lot. People could park down the street at the grocery store or McDonald’s and walk, the way Joe saw it, but he gave a donation to help pay for the new lot.
The church was plenty full at the funeral, but the preacher joked that “Joe, there’d be more people here if we had a parking lot.”
He talked about Joe using things until they had no use left, and that was true. My husband comes by his frugal genes honestly. My father-in-law
didn’t throw out anything he could fix, and when we took him to Crystal Bridges in Bentonville for his Christmas gift a couple of years ago, he wore a pair of threadbare pants I wouldn’t have given to Goodwill.
“Oh, well, I grabbed the wrong pair,” he said. Those were some of his work pants. It didn’t bother him.
As the preacher said, “Joe was comfortable in his own skin.” He’d worked hard all his life and achieved success, but he had no desire to flaunt it.
He’d switched living spaces with one of his grandsons just weeks before he died. This grandson and his family had been living in the garage apartment behind Joe’s parents’ historic home, where one of Joe’s daughters and son-in-law live. Joe’s grandson and family bought Joe’s home, and Joe moved into the apartment over the garage.
Joe was good to me the almost 35 years I knew him. We didn’t always agree, but I knew he loved me, and I loved him.
Joe wasn’t big on saying mushy things. When I had kidney cancer, he wrote me a touching letter telling me how he cared and how happy he was that I was going to be OK.
I’m sorry he left us, but what an amazing legacy he left behind.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.