To his classmates, he was a master welder. To his family, a humble genius. And to some theatre students today, he’s been the key to their dreams.
Thomas Keller passed away 11 years ago in Florida, at age 21. He had just completed his junior year studying technical theatre at VCUarts and, like many of his classmates, was spending the summer at the professional Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach.
Thomas was an industrious and accomplished student, making the Dean’s List all three years. He was known as an adept welder, responsible for a set of metal stairs used for several productions.
But most of all, he’s remembered as a warm and affable person who welcomed new students to the program and took them under his wing.
“Tom was one of the guys who was always here first, always willing to pitch in,” says Kevin McGranahan, scene shop foreman and facilities manager for the VCUarts theatre department. “He was just a great guy to work with, and a joy. He had a way of just saying something that brought everybody to laughter, that made any difficult task easier to do.”
During his time in the technical theatre program, Thomas worked on the shows Picasso, Big Love, Metamorphosis, The Civil War: A Musical, The Nerd, Madea, When You Comin’ Back, Red Rider? and Smoky Joe’s Cafe. The final run of Thomas’s last show, Volumes of Smoke, was dedicated to him.
“Watching Tom work gave me a new insight and respect into the development of these sets,” says brother David. “The actual professionalism, detail and scale of the theatre sets that were utilized at VCUarts was not something I had ever seen outside of a Broadway-style production.”
Though Thomas spent most of his life dedicated to set design and material selection, his sister Kristin says that he was eager to understand “all the level of the theatre spectrum.” In high school, he once took a comedic role in Anything Goes and floored his family. “He was so good,” she says. “We had no idea he was as talented on stage as he was backstage.”
In the decade since his passing, his family and friends have moved ahead, settling into careers and lives around the country. But they’re as proud of Thomas—and as excited to talk about him—as ever. To carry on his stewardship, a scholarship was founded in his name through a gift from his parents, Rosemary and Dave Keller, with the support of McGranahan and former theatre chair Ron Keller.
The Thomas John Keller Endowed Scholarship in Theatre supports students who, like Thomas, “demonstrate an outstanding work ethic and positive attitude in service to the theatre department.”
“We wanted [the award] to go to a theatre student that displayed passion, superior performance and all those things that you would like to see in a student,” Dave says.
“It represents more than just a recognition of the type of contributor that Tom was,” McGranahan says, “but also the type of character that you want to be around.”
Past recipients include Olivia Phillips (BFA ’15); Daniel Benzinger (BFA ’14); Matthew Grisdela (BFA ’14), now a carpenter at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C.; and Virginia Varland (BFA ’13), whose costume design credits include Chicago productions of The Wiz, Two Mile Hollow and Don Giovanni.
“I think that it’s a great way to remember Tom,” says Cailin Tasevski (BFA ’09), a theatre alumna and Thomas’s former girlfriend. A costume major at VCUarts, she worked with Thomas on school productions. “The scholarship is a nice way to see other students with similar talents, and a passion for making things continue their journey.”
The scholarship also allows the Keller family to maintain close ties with VCUarts and its students. This year’s winner, Julia Folkart (pictured above), was personally congratulated by Rosemary and David.
While those who knew him dearly miss his friendship, fervor and love of theatre, it’s clear that a part of Thomas lives on in the lives his scholarship has touched. That’s something that his brother David thinks would have really pleased him: “VCU was hugely influential to his happiness.”
Image: Thomas’s parents, Dave and Rosemary Keller, with Julia Folkart, the 2018 scholarship recipient.