Keel’s lessons still resonate after 60 years

First Byline: 
Jonathan Vickery - Staff Writer

Whether in the classroom or at church, Willise Keel has devoted more than 60 years to teaching others.
Keel began her 34-year career teaching English with Barnwell District 45 in 1950, the same year she joined Barnwell First Baptist Church. She would later teach a Sunday school class for several decades, until stepping down last year.
"I tried to be an example," said Keel, 83, reflecting on her long career. The Barnwell County native recently moved to Easley to be closer to her son Bruce. Her other son, Byron, lives in Atlanta, Ga.
She wanted to give her students the tools they needed to succeed in life, which meant she didn't cut them any slack. "They say I was hard as nails," said Keel with a smile. "It was all out of love."
She said nothing is more rewarding than seeing her former students grown up and living successful lives. "It makes me so proud," she said.
Keel saw some of her former students every Sunday in her Sunday school class, such as David and Barbara Creech and their son Scotty.
"I thought I was through with her when I got out of grammar school," joked David Creech, who joined the class three years ago. "She turned out to be one of the sweetest people. I wouldn't trade our friendship for nothing."
Just as Keel gave her grammar school students the tools they needed, she gave her Sunday school students the spiritual tools they needed for a relationship with God. That's why her class went straight through the Bible several times.
"I wanted them to know the scripture, what God wanted them to do," said Keel, because "the Bible is a pathway."
"She can just about quote you the Bible," said Lewis Owens, a 27-year member of the class, citing how her Bible is marked up with notes. "I still haven't learned enough."
Class members said Keel, who was the church's first female deacon, is more than a spiritual teacher; she is also a friend who they will miss seeing each Sunday.
"She's been a tower of strength for me," said Jackie Ramsey, who has known Keel since the 1970s. Keel helped Ramsey through a tough time several years ago when her mother was in the nursing home with Alzheimer's.
Alsa Sanders, a class member for nine years, said Keel has been like a second mother and helped her through the loss of her husband. The two became close after Sanders began taking Keel and her husband, the late Murray Keel, to doctor's appointments in Columbia. "She's depended on me as much as I've depended on her."
Though she no longer sees her class on a weekly basis, Keel will always love them. "They know I love them," said Keel.
It's a feeling that's mutual among her Sunday school class, who will always remember what she taught them.
"She taught me a lot about doing and caring for others and how important it is to have a good relationship with the Lord," said Sanders.
Owens said he learned how to not give up on someone, citing how Keel would be persistent in inviting people to church, including Creech.
"She was instrumental in bringing me closer to God," said Creech. He said Keel was relentless in getting him to come to her class after being out of church for a while.
"We will miss her," said Owens. "Barnwell will miss her."