Ruth Keeton's spirit Former councilwoman represented a liberalism on the wane.

December 19, 1997

TIMES WERE DIFFERENT in Ruth U. Keeton's heyday. The political pendulum was veering leftward when she served on the Howard County Council as a representative living in west Columbia. She embodied the spirit of Columbia, with its utopian goals of inclusion and collectivism.

In that snatch of time, liberals were proud of the label. And Mrs. Keeton, who died Sunday at age 78 with husband Morris at her side, was an unabashed liberal. She pushed for such causes as services for the elderly, farmland preservation, environmental protection and affordable housing; she believed that police officers and teachers should be able to live in the community they served. Mrs. Keeton was the graceful Quaker with a gentle demeanor who had the ability, a council successor said, to grasp the big picture while focusing on minute details.

She served her community and her government when Columbia was making Howard County more liberal than it had been. When Alzheimer's disease caused her to step down from the council in 1989, four of its five members were Democrats, as was the county executive.

As her health faded, so did liberalism in Howard. Mrs. Keeton had become a rare entity at the time of her death. The county and its government have become more conservative over the years. Republicans now control the executive suite and council chambers.

African-American Councilman C. Vernon Gray once believed, with good reason, that he had a legitimate shot of becoming county executive. He, too, came to eschew the liberal label. But he decided against running for the county's top job because he realized that his race was more of a disadvantage than it would have been in the years before Mrs. Keeton ended her career. The party of Ruth Keeton appears ready to unite behind Police Chief James Robey, believed to be a conservative Democrat, in the next year's county executive campaign.

The ranks of longtime Columbians that Mrs. Keeton exemplifies are thinning as time changes both the planned city and Howard County. But friends and acquaintances believe the grace she brought and the social consciousness she espoused will not soon disappear.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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