Eulogy for a Teacher: The Last Lessons of Patrick Keats

July 24, 2019 Updated: July 25, 2019

When we hear the word “teacher,” most of us think of a man or woman standing before a room filled with students, whiteboard and markers at hand, imparting knowledge to young people through books, lectures, drills, exercises, and tests. Perhaps we recall a specific teacher, one as dear to us as gold, or sadly, perhaps that teacher we despised leaps to mind, an instructor who by dint of sarcasm or lack of interest in the students left a sour taste both for the subject being taught and for that particular individual.

In truth, of course, most of us are teachers. Whether we realize it or not, by word and by deed we spend our days instructing those around us: our children, our friends, our coworkers, even those with whom we have only a passing acquaintance. One small example: The barista at the coffee shop I frequent, Laney, reminds me with my every visit of the importance of joyful service, demonstrated by her smile and her kindnesses toward her customers. 

Recently, the world lost one of these good people, a man who taught others inside and outside of the classroom.

On July 5, 2019, Dr. Patrick Keats, age 67, died after a long battle with cancer. For more than a quarter of a century, he taught literature at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. A husband, a father, and a friend to many, including me, Pat was beloved by his students. Who could not take pleasure in this man with the leprechaun’s twinkle in his eyes and such brio in his greeting? When talking about his passions—his wife and children, literature, movies and plays, his students—Pat’s voice filled with such ardor that just listening to him made you glad to be alive. 

Patrick Keats
Patrick Keats. (Courtesy of Christendom College)

Thinking of him these last few days, mourning him, I contemplated what in Pat’s style of teaching had drawn the admiration and affection of so many students.

Then came one of those bombshell moments of enlightenment.

Pat Keats was teaching me a last lesson—not in literature, but in life.

What made him a great teacher were some character traits we might all do well to embrace more fiercely. Whether at home or in the office, whether with friends or with that coffee shop barista, here are some of the lessons we can take from Pat Keats to help ourselves and others excel.  

Seek to Understand 

Pat was much involved with the college—he had served as academic dean for 11 years—and sometimes spoke to me of the struggles of the college. Sometimes he questioned certain administrative decisions and spoke of clashes between faculty members, but never did he speak bitterly of others. When he himself was fighting some of these battles, he sought to apprehend viewpoints opposed to his own rather than to condemn them outright. 

Lesson No. 1: Build bridges, not barriers. 

The Power of Engagement

In addition to his classroom duties, Pat gave himself over to the theater. He helped the Christendom College Players with more than 40 productions, some of them classics of the stage, some of them written by the students. In doing so, Pat forged relationships with his students outside the ardors of writing essays and taking tests. With other students, he shared meals in the college dining room, took them out to supper, and encouraged them to read poetry and prose in groups away from the classroom. One graduate, now a busy mother, still recollects the time “Dr. Keats” took several students off to a cave where, à la Dead Poets Society, they drank wine and read poetry. 

Lesson No. 2, especially for those who manage businesses or work with others: We build strength in our organization when we build relationships. 

Enthusiasm

Pat loved literature and brought that love into the classroom. Whether he was teaching a core course to freshmen or an advanced course to seniors—one of his students told me that his class on Oscar Wilde brought that writer and his struggles to life for her—Pat sought to inspire in his students a love for books and writers. 

Lesson No. 3: Suppose we followed Pat’s example in our daily routine. Suppose we entered the workplace determined to do our best and to do it with passion and gusto. Even if we are working in an unhappy place of business, what might happen if we entered the building light in step, a smile on our lips, and a lilt in our hearts? (I used to pay a weekly visit to a company where nearly every employee seemed miserable. I purposely entered the building whistling, smiling, and offering a hello to everyone I passed in the corridors, and left wondering whether I had nudged anyone toward happiness or was simply regarded as a lunatic.)

Caring

Great teachers care about their students. They set high standards and challenge the students to meet them. Great teachers practice tough love, but they always take into consideration the dreams, abilities, and limitations of the students. If it is in their power—a recommendation letter, a phone call, offering counsel and a listening heart—they support their students when they leave school to enter the workforce or to pursue further education. Pat was one of these teachers, a man who backed his students to the hilt.

Lesson No. 4: In our places of business, in our homes, in raising our children, and in our expectations of ourselves, we should raise the bar high while at the same time lending a hand to those who falter and remembering that we ourselves are imperfect creatures.

Loving

In his biography of Douglas MacArthur, “American Caesar,” William Manchester gives us reasons why MacArthur’s troops in the World War I were so loyal to him: “He was closer to their age than other senior officers, he shared their discomforts and their danger, and he adored them in return.”

Pat adored his students, and many of them adored him in return. Though I never sat in his classroom, I heard this adoration in his voice whenever he spoke of a particular student or class.

Lesson No. 5: Love those we lead or teach. This one is key. Students know when a teacher loves them. That love doesn’t require direct expression. It emanates from the teacher, and the students can’t help but feel it. 

Whether a Douglas MacArthur or a Patrick Keats, good leaders, who are also good teachers, inspire and return adoration.

Requiescat in pace, Patrick Keats. You left a noble legacy, my friend. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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