Ruth Keeton, 78, dies at home Liberal councilwoman served from 1974-89

December 17, 1997|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

It was eight years ago that Howard County leaders dedicated the Ruth Keeton Room inside a Columbia community center -- paying tribute to a well-liked liberal who helped ease Howard's transition from rural farmland to bustling suburb.

Mrs. Keeton was there, smiling quietly as admirers presented gifts and kind words. They knew she was leaving politics for "health reasons." As for the specifics of her Alzheimer's disease, they either didn't know or weren't talking about it.

Early next month, Mrs. Keeton's friends and family members will return to the Ruth Keeton Room -- this time for her memorial service. She died Sunday in her Columbia home as her husband, Morris, held her hand. She was 78.

Mrs. Keeton, a Democrat, served on the County Council from 1974 to 1989 -- a period of growth and change in Howard. She pushed locally for a farmland preservation program, which has helped Howard control suburban sprawl. She also pushed for public education funds and environmental protection.

In Columbia, Mrs. Keeton leaves a legacy as a champion of community causes such as affordable housing. She always wanted Howard County's teachers, police and firefighters to be able to live in wealthy Howard.

She served on numerous local boards, including the Columbia Association's board of directors.

"She was a true liberal," Mr. Keeton, 80, said yesterday. "She didn't care what anyone said about it. That's what she was."

She also was liked even by those who didn't like liberalism.

"I grew to respect her very, very much," said Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a father of conservative politics in Howard.

At the council offices, Mr. Feaga had an office next to Mrs. Keeton's. He often walked her to her car after late-night meetings.

"She never knew what the word animosity meant," Mr. Feaga said yesterday. "She always saw the good side of someone."

Mrs. Keeton grew up on a farm in Vinton, Iowa. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern University, where in the 1930s she met social activists who helped shape her political views.

She later became a Quaker and worked for the American Friends Service Committee, a national relief organization.

She met her future husband outside Chicago in 1943. At the time, he was working for a conscientious objector group opposed to war as national policy.

They married a year later.

"She always had a certain elegance about her dress and manner," recalled Mr. Keeton, who grew up poor in East Texas during the Depression and remembered that his wife wore a bright red dress the day he met her.

In the 1950s, the couple traveled to West Germany, where they worked with the Friends Service Committee assisting war refugees. They later spent time in Ohio before moving to Columbia in 1969.

"She had an overwhelming concern for others," said Louise Riemer, a Columbia neighbor and close friend.

Mrs. Keeton worked to make sure homebuilders knocked down only as many trees as necessary. In her later political campaigns, she used green balloons and banners to illustrate her concern for the environment.

Mrs. Keeton was first elected to the Howard County Council in 1974. Fellow council member Virginia M. Thomas once described her style this way:

"When Ruth really believes in something, she will corner you anyplace. There were days when I thought Ruth wanted something and I thought she was going to be outside my house in the mornings waiting for me."

Ms. Thomas added that Mrs. Keeton wasn't belligerent and willingly compromised.

She also took her husband to many political events.

"One day I told her, 'Gee, I just stand around and look for someone to talk to. Why don't you quit taking me?' " Mr. Keeton recalled yesterday with a laugh. "She said, 'You have to understand that having a respectable husband is sometimes more important than where you stand on these issues.' "

In one of Mrs. Keeton's most controversial actions, she changed her position on a major zoning plan that would have required 20-acre lots in western Howard County. She was alone in supporting the plan in 1985.

Three years later, she changed her mind -- supporting farmers who wanted the opportunity to develop their land for more houses.

"It embarrassed her to have gone through that switch," Mr. Keeton said.

In 1988, at the age of 69, Mrs. Keeton told her husband that she was starting to forget the names of roads in western Howard County, Mr. Keeton recalled.

That's no big deal, so do I, her husband told her.

Yes, Mrs. Keeton said, but you haven't served on the zoning board all these years.

The two went to the doctor and Mrs. Keeton was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Mr. Keeton began serving as her caregiver.

At the beginning, he said, his wife thought she could fight the disease. Within two years, though, she was no longer driving.

Even as the disease caused friends to develop stronger feelings for her, they began to feel awkward during visits. Still, recalled Mr. Keeton: "She always seemed happy -- not ha-ha happy, but at least content."

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