‘Miami Then and Now’ has become annual Alumni Weekend tradition
By Jesús Jiménez, assistant director of editorial services
Robert Keller ’73 always knew he’d be attending Miami University.
What he didn’t really know was what degree he would pursue.
It was during a conversation with his grandfather, John, that Robert saw an obvious fit in architecture.
Robert spent 23 years as university architect at Miami and knows as much about the university’s history as anyone.
Robert’s presentation, “Miami then and Now,” has become an annual tradition during Alumni Weekend.
This year, Alumni Weekend went digital due to the COVID-19 health pandemic, and Robert’s presentation took on a new format through our Alumni College Live webinar entitled “The Evolution of our Campus & its Student Life.”
“Robert’s insight as an alumnus, architect and historian provides an interesting perspective that translates into a very engaging presentation,” said Mark Macechko ’01, senior director of alumni relations.
“His presentation always seems to be one of the most popular events during Alumni Weekend.”
‘It was a natural fit … ‘
Robert’s ancestors were bricklayers and stone setters in Germany who brought their trades to the United States. Robert got his start working with his family business, John H. Keller and Sons, in Eaton, Ohio, but as he got older, he started making plans for after high school.
During the summer before his senior year at Jefferson High School, Robert’s grandfather approached him.
“He said, ‘Bobby what are you going to do when you graduate next year?’” Robert recalled. “Quite honestly, I hadn’t thought about a whole lot other than bricklaying. He said, ‘I think we have enough bricklayers, but we don’t have any architects in the family. Why don’t you go be an architect?’ I hadn’t thought about architecture until he planted the seed. It was a natural fit going from construction work.”
After completing what was a five-year program at the time, Robert worked in the family business for about a year before earning a job in a private practice in Dayton.
‘To this day, I don’t know how I got it … ‘
Robert settled into a 16-year career in the private sector before learning about a Miami opening.
He didn’t even know universities had their own architects.
“Things were going along smoothly and I didn’t have any plans to leave private practice, and one day my wife was reading the newspaper and said, ‘How about this, Miami is looking for a university architect.’”
Initially, Robert didn’t show much interest. But one day, he received an envelope in the mail with the job posting and the job description.
“To this day, I don’t know how I got it – no one ever confessed to me,” Robert said. “The letter just showed up, I read the job description and thought, ‘This is interesting.’ I still didn’t do a whole lot for another week or two.”
Eventually, Robert sent in the application and forgot about it. A couple months passed and he assumed he wasn’t getting the position.
“I figured they weren’t interested in me or my application was too late or whatever might have been. Then, I get a phone call from Roger Rowe, who later became my boss,” Robert said. “He was the associate vice president of physical facilities at the time and he informed me that I had been shortlisted with four or five other individuals, and he invited me down for an interview.”
A few hours into his job interview, Robert went from knowing very little about the position to knowing he had to win it.
“Initially, I was interested but not excited,” Robert said. “By lunch time, I wanted the job really bad.”
Two weeks later, Robert Keller received the phone call offering him the position.
“I was really excited about the idea of a campus that was very near and dear to my heart, had been here for a long time and the notion that I could work on projects in one location and build up a group of works over a period of time,” Robert said.
Miami Then and Now
During his time at Miami, Robert oversaw several renovations and new buildings, including the Recreational Sports Center, the Health Services Center, university police buildings, the Freedom Summer Memorial, the Walter L. Gross Jr. Family and Student-Athlete Development Center, the Child Development Center at the Western Campus, McKie Field at Hayden Park, Miami University Softball Stadium, Goggin Ice Center, Heritage Commons student apartments, Campus Avenue Garage, Garland Hall, the Psychology Building, Maple Street Station, Etheridge Hall, Farmer School of Business projects and, among others, the Armstrong Student Center.
While he worked on several significant projects in the early 2000s, alumni and the community had several questions about the evolution of the campus.
An opportunity to answer them occurred during Winter College 2005, when the alumni program was only in its third year.
“One day, Jayne Whitehead, who was vice president of University Advancement at the time, called me up and said, ‘Bob, how would you like to go to Florida to talk about the campus plan? We’re doing something called the Winter College,’” Robert said.
“She said it might be a great opportunity to unveil to the public what’s going on. I said, ‘Florida sounds great, count me in!’”
“‘By the way,’” Jayne told him. “’Since we’re taking faculty, the people we send down there do two talks, so what else can you talk about?’”
That’s when Miami Then and Now was born.
“I said, ‘Why don’t I do one where we talk about how we got to where we are?’” Robert said. “I pulled out a few old campus maps and that’s the beginning of me doing the history talks. It took so much more time than I thought it would, there was so much I didn’t know and I’ve been doing research on the campus every year.”
‘I wouldn’t trade it for anything … ‘
Robert learns a new thing every time he presents.
He shares the history of the buildings in chronological order, historic milestones and how history impacted the development of campus.
Then there’s anecdotes that come up, such as the snowball rebellion, when women were first admitted on campus and when cars were first allowed on campus.
Since retiring in 2012, Robert has collaborated on a few projects, including the Great Seal in the Armstrong Student Center, the Western Legacy Tribute, and the Veterans’ Tribute.
“‘There are things I’m still learning and I’m changing up the presentation from what I’ve been doing in the past,” Robert said.
“Being able to work 25 years, plus or minus, on the campus, we did a lot of projects. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”