Happy Father’s Day, Jean

Father’s Day invites us to ponder the father figures we have known—not just our biological fathers, but any man who has blessed us with fatherly action at some point in our lives.

Several years ago, I wrote about never having known my father, but having an uncle who was my “Pop.” I am forever grateful for Pop, but in terms of parenting style, he believed that I should learn in the “school of hard knocks,” not by his mentoring. The problem with this philosophy is that virtually every young man needs some paternal mentoring at crucial junctures in life. For me, that time was when I was in college.

Enter: Jean Keller. J. P. (Jean Paul) Keller, Ph.D. was the Chairman (in those days when we didn’t use the gender-neutral “Chair”) of the Foreign Languages Department at my undergraduate school. The French-sounding name combination “Jean Paul” proved problematical. Once he declined an invitation to join an association of female scholars on the grounds that he hadn’t met the minimum qualifications. At commencement, I introduced him to my mother, whose name also was Jean, saying, “Jean, meet Jean—same spelling, same pronunciation.”

Jean was an extraordinary man. Born to missionary parents in China, he lived there for his first 18 years. He spoke English, Chinese, German, French, and Spanish. He also taught physics in college, and he built his own house.

I first knew Jean as “Dr. Keller” when he and his wife, Betty, were in charge of a group of 24 undergraduates for a summer study program in Mexico between my sophomore and junior years. The girls in our group affectionately called the Kellers “papá” and “mamá.”

It was in my senior year that Jean became like a father to me. I was a mess. My beloved aunt had died; I was an agnostic; I had become so radicalized during a semester in South America that Pop had kicked me out of the house [side note: when he invited me back three-and-a-half years later, my tooth brush was still in its place at the bathroom sink, which brought tears to my eyes]; I had an incurable medical condition; I was number six in the military draft lottery at a time when the ignorant, malevolent anti-American garbage so prevalent on campus had made me doubt my country; finally, I was descending into alcoholism.

In fall of my senior year, I took a directed study with Jean. He allowed me to read books on a wide variety of topics and then discuss them with him in Spanish, which we often did by walking around campus and the surrounding area for an hour at a time. I was desperately searching for answers to fundamental questions, trying to figure out who I was, what I could believe in, why the world was so messed up, etc. It was a search for truth, and I spent far more time on that quest than I did studying for my courses or preparing for a career.

Jean was compassionate. He could see that although I was leading a self-destructive lifestyle, I wasn’t a bad person. I was a prodigal, scorned by some members of the faculty at our nominally Christian college, but Jean walked the walk instead of talking the talk: He saw through the long hair and defensive persona.

Then an amazing thing happened: Jean invited me to live with him and Betty for my last semester of college. Their own three grown children were all living away, so they had room. I accepted, and the experience turned my life around. Living in a stable home environment for the first time in my life was healing. Being able to talk with Jean on a daily basis was incalculably helpful. The summer after living with Jean and Betty, my search for truth was rewarded: I experienced my Christian rebirth. The next year, I quit drinking and began to outgrow my youthful flirtation with socialism. I was on my way to being a mature, stable, working adult with God as the anchor of my life.

Jean, Betty, and I remained friends until their passing.  They got to know my wife and daughter, for which I am grateful. I’ll close with a lesson that Jean taught me about scholarly humility: After his retirement, I suggested that Jean write some articles about China. He declined; he felt he didn’t understand the Chinese sufficiently to write about them, since he had lived there “only 18 years.”

Jean Keller was one of the smartest and wisest men I have ever met. His paternal kindness helped to save my life. Gracias, Papá, y vaya con Dios (go with God). You will never be forgotten.