By Somer Eckert
Keith Esch doesn’t think he can sing or swim. He’s good at cooking, though he doesn’t consider himself a cook. When I asked him what he does consider his gifts to be, he said without hesitation, “People. I enjoy interacting with people.” Keith is definitely a people person. He and my dad have had many conversations at meeting or over coffee, and he is close with all of his neighbors.
Keith has always had a way with people and been in a line of work that requires interaction with people. But he didn’t really begin to explore it until about a year ago when he went into a deep depression.
He was in the house most of the day and on one of those days his son called and said, “You need to get out of the house and do something with other people!” Keith went out that very day and simply began walking and talking to people he knew or got to know. He wouldn’t let himself be alone in the house at all after that.
Keith jokes that he told everyone about his sickness. People would ask him, “How are you?” And he would say, “Well fine. It’s just I’m sick.” Eventually, after going out every day, Keith began to feel better and he didn’t tell people he was sick anymore. He still goes out often, stopping to speak to neighbors, getting to know people in the market and visiting people at Friends Fellowship, a Continuing Care Retirement Community.
Something I’ve observed about Keith is his welcoming presence. He seems very comfortable talking with all kinds of people and consciously tries to find levels to connect with people on, seemingly without much effort.
One of the most universal ways of connecting with someone is humor. Keith understands this and makes it a habit to tease people in a friendly way. It’s something that people who know him a little or a lot would know.
When I asked Keith where he grew up, he laughed and said, “Well I expect to do that someday.” He then went on to tell me that he grew up in the thumb of Michigan and in Arizona. He says that he always thought his parents were pretty strict. They were staunch Mennonites. But his father was also very trusting because he let Keith drive at a young age.
They lived out in the country where his father was a farmer. The things that Keith emphasized were that his father had a great sense of humor and he was a “careful steward of the land.” His mother was the only child of a preacher. She hoped that Keith would be like his grandfather and Keith’s father said he was, in fact, actually somewhat similar. Keith says he wishes his mother was here today to see him and his children, but she died when Keith was 21.
Keith went to a boarding school in Virginia for the last three years of high school. That’s where he went to college as well.
The way Keith tells it, he began pursuing his wife, Virginia, in September and asked her to marry him in November. Beforehand, he did many cute things to keep her attention, such as giving her wrapped candy and short poems.
When he asked her to marry him, she laughed. He says her reaction didn’t hurt his feelings and they both went about things normally. When he asked her a second time, Virginia said, “You’re not gonna go away are you?” While recounting this story to me, Virginia and Keith smiled at each other as if they shared a funny secret.
They’ve now been married for 56 years and have two children. The elder is Brian, who is a psychiatrist. Brenda is the head of a Friends school in Pennsylvania.
Keith has had a great many jobs. Some of them he was unsure about but, looking back, he says he sees each one as a blessing. He learned a lot from his jobs because they put him in touch with many different kinds of Quakers. He was born Mennonite and became an ordained minister. For a while he was a pastor of a Mennonite church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. But he eventually felt led to go to seminary. So he and Virginia moved to Indiana where he went to the Earlham School of Religion.
Upon graduation, Keith became the director of admissions for ESR. He didn’t feel he was doing very well at the financial aspect of the job, however, until one day when an old friend called and asked to have lunch with him. So Keith whipped up some lunch. While visiting, his friend gave a huge donation to ESR. Looking back, Keith sees this experience as affirming. For him, it’s one of those “reminders of where our work does something for somebody.”
It seems to me that Keith is one of those people who knows when he’s blessed. He knew he was blessed to be with Virginia and asked her to marry him. He knows that it was an affirming experience for his friend to make that donation. I also know I was blessed to be able to speak so extensively with him.
Somer Eckert is a 15-year-old sophomore in high school who hopes there is an element of writing in whatever she chooses to do with her life. Somer was asked by the outreach committee of West Richmond Friends Meeting in Indiana where she attends to conduct a series of interviews with the people who attend West Richmond. Her interview with Keith Esch is the first interview in the series.