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Harold Keables

His dedication to teaching went beyond the call of duty

Mr. Harold R. Keables taught English at ‘Iolani School from 1965 to 1980, after devoting 30 years to students in the Denver public school system. He was named Life magazine Teacher of the Year in 1960. Mr. Keables, who was born on Jan. 28, 1900, died in 1982 at age 82.

He touched students and faculty at ‘Iolani with his passion for learning and high standards for writing. Mr. Keables was dedicated to all of his students, not just the gifted or talented writers, but also the ones who initially struggled with words.

A true academician, Mr. Keables was famous for his meticulous correction of student writing. He introduced to ‘Iolani a method of using detailed codes to direct students to a grammar book.

In 1998, the ‘Iolani English Department introduced its own book, named The Keables Guide to Writing, which was tailored to the needs of its students.

‘Iolani School administrators and alumni contributed to the Spring 1984 edition of the ‘Iolani School Bulletin, which highlighted the newly established Harold Keables Chair of English. Steven Bonsey's tribute to Mr. Keables is reprinted below.


In Memoriam -- Harold Keables
By Steven C. Bonsey '74

By nine o’clock the morning traffic on Convention Drive was so still that the occasional sound of a passing car had a dreamlike quality. An old man in khaki and a straw hat set sprinklers here and there which tossed up white wings under the shower trees in syncopated pulses. Through the branches and over the low roof of the Business Office, the heights of the Koolaus shone bluer than the seablue sky. An alighting mynah paused to clear its throat, but was interrupted by an insistent question from Mr. Keables.

“What does this remind you of?”

Mr. Keables halted his pacing across the front of the room long enough to lift his hand, fingertips touching, from the depths of his right coat pocket, an ancient burial ground of broken chalk pieces. He held the hand outstretched before and above him, summoning the presence of some Olympian verity into the company of our assembled dullnesses. An infertile silence lengthened. The fingers then opened suddenly and trembled. The obvious answer hovered there just above our too-thick skulls.

“Think!” came with a stamp of the foot. Cerebral pressure increased to the point of minor physical pain. The hand held there a moment longer, then dropped dispirited as Mr. Keables returned to his pacing. He cast about for a different approach. Unfortunately, the question was exact.

“What does this remind you of?” He leaned against the chalkboard for support. The outline he had posted in the minutes before class now impressed itself into what had once been the nap of his coat.

Meanwhile, consciousness had be gun to dawn. My mind surveyed the landmarks of Western literature. Was it the tragic vision of Aeschylus? The modernity of Euripides? The classic perfection of Sophocles? Light dawned. I raised my hand.

“Yes,” he said, pointing to me and approaching expectantly. My inspiration delivered itself fullblown in all its radiant splendor, as Athena had sprung fullgrown from the severed brow of Zeus.

“No,” said Mr. Keables, his back returning to the chalkboard, his wrists descending once more into their distorted sanctuaries.

Yes, Harold Keables’ style was brutal. His A.P. English course did not resemble other English courses, and his pedagogy did not affirm the unformed intellect. With another teacher, the exchange might have been different.

“Who can tell me the name of the river on which Huck Finn spent his life? Johnny?”

“Uh, the Nile?”

“Thank you, Johnny, that’s very good. The Nile is indeed a river. Excellent. Does anyone else have any input?”

Keables was different. Keables had standards, and they were never relaxed. Whether they were fair or not seems almost an impertinent question. They were his, period. Or rather, they were him. (G7d6: They were he.) They seemed to hold him upright almost physically long after his body should have been relieved of active duty on the classroom front.

Sometimes his standards seemed unfathomable. Answering a Keables question correctly (that is, to his satisfaction) often required as much clairvoyance as knowledge or insight or imagination. Never, however, was there a question that the standards might be capricious or arbitrarily applied. Keables was the same yesterday and today, until the end of his tomorrows.

It was this that gave his judgments an air of the absolute. The competition for good marks on any given assignment embraced not only the twenty-odd students then enrolled in the class, but the scores of twenty-odd over the decades of his teaching. He would read outstanding examples of our writing out loud to the class. Here is a fine essay on Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," he would say in introduction, and the lucky one among us would swell a bit with pride. Yes, a fine essay, he would say in conclusion, though not as fine as this one’s in ‘67, or as eloquent as that one’s in ‘54, or as . . . The swelling would subside a bit.

Sometimes his standards seemed a bit too objective. Over the years he had succeeded in reducing the received grammar and usage of the English language to a neatly organized code of letters and numbers, as perhaps, "G4b3: Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction." But the problem came, especially in his creative writing classes, when his system seemed to codify matters of taste or style in a way that stifled what we felt to be creativity. “B4u2: Do not use slang.” What kind rule that? Not that Keables was inflexible. On the contrary, he could well appreciate the creative stretching of literary convention if given sufficient artistic justification, but there was the rub: he would be the judge of that sufficiency. Keables was the Inspector 12 of the English language.

Standards alone, however, do not constitute the kind of excellence in teaching of which Keables’ was the paradigm. Keables brought to the exercise of these standards an energy and a dedication that were awesome to behold. Who could forget the sight of Keables at a basketball game, open folder in lap, red pen in hand, eyes scrutinizing a referee’s call, voice raised in staunch encouragement? How he managed to correct the weekly deluge of papers as promptly, minutely and attentively as he consistently did, while at the same time remaining an unwaivering supporter of the school’s extracurricular life, defies comprehension. And if to this be added a recognition of the gentle and constant care he tendered his wife during Mrs. Keables’ long convalescence, we have a picture of a truly extraordinary human being.

When I say, as I do now firmly and forthrightly, that of all the teachers I have had in grade school, high school and beyond, Mr. Keables lives in me now as no other, I know that I do not speak alone, but that scores of twenty-odd voices join my own. And to say that Mr. Keables taught me to write, to think, and to hold high standards dear, does not begin to exhaust my debt to him. Above all these things,an incomparable gift he gave me. By his attention, by his care, by his devotion, by his codgery, nitpicking, maddening, fussbudgetty love he gave me dignity; he gave me myself. For this I love him. For this he lives and remains the same Mr. Keables—yesterday, today and tomorrow.