Grace Keen – a life of service

Published 6:43 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2018

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Grace Keen tried twice — both times unsuccessfully — to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors. That was where she thought she could have the most influence in the life of Isle of Wight County.

It was one time that Mrs. Keen was wrong, because she had far more influence as a citizen activist than she would ever have had as one of five supervisors.

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If you don’t think so, then name the five members of the Board of Supervisors in 1980 — or 1990. Can’t recall? Well, name the county’s most outspoken advocate during that entire period for senior citizens, the environment and county beautification. Grace Keen, of course. When most supervisors are long forgotten, Grace Keen will be remembered.

Grace and her husband Pete moved here in the late 1960s. When I returned home and went to work at this small newspaper, she was one of the first people I met as I attended Board of Supervisors meetings. It seemed she was always there, asking questions, promoting issues and working to make her adopted home county the best it could be.

That’s one of the things that rankled critics, particularly those who were natives. They, like most rural Virginians of their time and many even today, believed in a laissez-faire approach to county growth. If you owned land, it was yours to do with as you chose. It’s an appealing philosophy for rural Americans, but Mrs. Keen could see the growth that was coming, and she knew that Isle of Wight needed to at least try to get a handle on it. That meant some government intervention.

Nearly four decades ago, in 1979, Mrs. Keen founded the Isle of Wight Citizens Association. The group wasn’t terribly large and critics often said it just served to advance Grace Keen’s goals. Critics would say that, of course, but the facts were somewhat different. Citizen associations are most always made up of like-minded people whose goals are pretty similar, and so it was with the Citizens Association. Mrs. Keen built the group, but it stands on its own today, a lasting legacy of her passion for better government and a better community.

One of Mrs. Keen’s most acclaimed victories was the official designation of the JRB as simply the James River Bridge. Peninsula legislators wanted to name it for the late Delegate Lewis McMurran, of Newport News. Mrs. Keen was appalled. She lobbied legislators and won the battle, and the JRB is what it is today because of her.

I believe Mrs. Keen’s most important legacy, however, was her commitment to beautifying Isle of Wight, particularly its entry corridors. She loved crepe myrtle trees and saw the practicality of these easy to grow and maintain Asian imports. Today, Benn’s Church Boulevard and Brewers Neck Boulevard are treed corridors because of her determination.

She also knew the future lies not with our generation, but with the county’s youth, and with that spirit of optimism, she began a “Plant a Tree for a Child” program at the public schools, in which trees were planted for each incoming class of kindergarteners. The effort won her national recognition by the Arbor Day Foundation.

The Chamber of Commerce and the county Economic Development Department recognize Mrs. Keen’s civic efforts each year by awarding a county resident the Grace Keen Distinguished Community Service Award.

The award is an appropriate tribute, but a more visible and continuing one would be for the county to commit a modest amount of annual funding toward the additional planting and maintaining of trees along the county’s major roads. Then, we might be reminded of Grace Keen every year when the crepe myrtles bloom.