In Memoriam: Rodney Keyser

A funeral Mass will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, July 30, 2008, in St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Portland for Rodney Elliott Keyser of Portland, who died July 24 of pancreatic cancer at age 66.

Rodney Keyser departed in grace and peace at his home on July 24, with his beloved Michelle at his side. The sun and moonlight sparkled off the river and wrapped our love around him in his days and nights of leaving. Rodney planned to live to 100, and remembered each and everyday that it was a genuine miracle he lived past 30.

Rodney had huge energy for life, a love of being alive that reached into the hearts of all who knew him. He shared himself with an amazing network of family and friends from every layer of his countless passions: his marriage and mountain climbing, Alcoholics Anonymous and 12 Step Recovery; his hiking friends, film going friends, early childhood friends. He was kind and openhearted and his laugh could shake the rafters. Rodney has left us with a story of courage, recovery and joy that we will celebrate forever. “Pass it on,” he would say, and “Keep coming back.”

Rodney Elliott Keyser came into this world on February 25, 1942, an adventure waiting to happen. He joined mom Helen, dad Joe and 3-year old sister Marcia. He was a creative, playful child, an original free spirit, and a meticulous organizer of boyhood treasures hidden neatly one inside the other like Russian dolls. His mother was the beloved Lincoln High Librarian and the best read person in Rodney’s life. Helen’s love of books rubbed off on Rodney and he always had a book at hand. (During the darkest years of his twenties, he tore through series of detective novels.) Under the influence of his grandfather, Rodney developed a deep and lasting affinity with the natural world.

Rodney wanted to live strong and long like his larger-than-life grandpa. Charles Paul Keyser was an early conservationist, outdoorsman and honorary member of the Mazama climbing club. He took Rodney on hikes and encouraged him to climb Mt. Hood. C.P. Keyser was Parks Superintendent for the City of Portland in the pre-World War II days when Forest Park was put together. As an old man, he was honored as the “Father of Forest Park.” During high school, Rodney was a fire lookout for Forest Park, stationed with a chair and telephone at an upstairs back window of the St. John’s Police Station. He scanned the forest over Tualatin Mountain with binoculars, and read to his hearts content between scans.

Rodney was a “working camper” at the Portland YMCA’s Camp Meehan at the north end of Spirit Lake. He competed with Eastmoreland neighborhood pal Bill Prendergast to see how many trail miles he could rack up around St. Helen’s high lakes. Bill and Rodney had both climbed Mt. Hood before they took the Mazama Basic Climbing School. After the course, they climbed St. Helens via the long lost Dogs Head, Mt. Adams and Hood again in August, with rock tumbling down the chute!

A natural linguist, Rodney excelled in Latin and when Russian was offered at Cleveland High he jumped at it. His Russian was so good that he majored in it at the University of Washington in Seattle, graduating pretty much on schedule, with a minor in French. There was a tragedy at the end of Rodney’s high school years: Marcia died in 1959, at age 20. Some of Rodney’s friends believe it was Marcia’s death that propelled him toward drugs in college.

In Seattle and Portland, down to California, Rodney ran with a gang of friends who played music and did drugs. He was a polite, personable druggie in the beginning, well-dressed, a gentleman to the ladies. Rodney loved British sports cars and spent many happy hours in the 60s driving in the hills of Berkeley in his Morgan, dapper with his red moustache and a scarf to match.

Heroin shattered Rodney’s life in Haight-Ashbury. Creative energy and drugs were mixing all around him; the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead started in the neighborhood, his friends were putting the jugband together. But Rodney was ravaged by his addiction. He had become “Dirty Red,” a hard core heroin addict. He was stabbed in a drug deal gone wrong. People who knew Rodney during the street junkie years were amazed he survived.

Rodney returned to Portland, on and off heroin, in and out of his parents’ house. He flew down Union Street (now MLK Boulevard) on his bicycle to cop drugs, went to jail and a group home, had his spleen kicked in, spent time in medical and psych units. At one hospital a doctor told him his blood work indicated that he had leukemia. The diagnosis was wrong, but it made Rodney desperate enough to finally commit to recovery, a long and difficult process in the first years.

Rodney’s heroin addiction was so severe that he was put a high dose of methadone for a longer time that most addicts can ever come off. With the help of alcohol, Rodney put opiates behind him. By 1971, Rodney was the “drunkest drunk” in Portland and had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Only a few people with both alcohol and heroin addictions attended meetings at that time and few of the regulars expected him to make it.

Raleigh Hills was the one and only addictions treatment center in Portland in the early ‘70s. It was famous for its doctrine that alcoholism was a disease, not a moral failing. Rodney graduated several times from Raleigh Hills and it cost his parents a bundle. Rodney found out years after their deaths, that whenever Joe and Helen were asked why they never gave up on him, Helen answered, “Because Rodney is worth it.”

He detoxed for good in the spring of 1975 at Serenity Lane Treatment Center, enduring severe alcohol withdrawal with DTs and hallucinations. However, a fellow patient remembers hearing Rodney’s “huge laugh” on what was only his second day sober. (Rodney’s laugh has been variously described as unique and catching, ringing, braying, crazy, beautiful, contagious. He laughed outrageously at his own jokes and never flubbed a punch line.)

In mid-‘70s Eugene, more young people were starting to get help for drug and alcohol problems. They created a special AA group for themselves that met at the new Day by Day Center for recovering alcoholics. Rodney lived in the little house behind the Center in exchange for caretaker duties. He started cleaning up a mountain of wreckage from his past, and Rodney being Rodney, got back in shape for mountain climbing. He and his favorite dog, a black mutt named Pernod, climbed all the way to the summit of Broken Top together during Rodney’s first year of sobriety. Rodney started his vast collection of AA speaker tapes. (They competed for space with all Miles Davis’ recordings and goofy radio comedy shows.)

Toward the end of the ‘70s, it came to the attention of the Marion-Polk-Yamhill Council on Alcoholism that Rodney Keyser spoke Russian and could perhaps serve as counselor for Russian-speakers at a treatment center in Woodburn. Rodney took on this difficult assignment with total commitment and quaking knees: His Russian was rusty and his clients were resistant. But he made an impression on his colleagues for his personal dedication to 12 Step Recovery, and in a few years Rodney had become the supervisor of the Woodburn facility. Rodney had found his vocation.

In 1989, Rodney finished a Masters Degree in Social Work at Portland State University along with a paid internship at the Veteran’s Administration in Vancouver. If Rodney was proud of this accomplishment, Helen Keyser was prouder. He went to work for Holladay Park Hospital, where he became the primary treatment counselor in the dual-diagnosis program. His patience and compassion made an extraordinary difference in the lives of people who otherwise had little chance of surviving the combination of two diseases. He retired from Legacy Health Systems as a Chemical Dependency Counselor in February, 2004.

A not atypical “retired” day for Rodney has been documented as waking up before dawn to pedal to a bicycle shop to watch the Tour de France, followed by a 10-mile hike in the Columbia Gorge, then on to an AA meeting prior to dinner with friends. He would sit still for a meeting or a movie. If Rodney plunked down his dollars, he would sit through almost any film; from foreign and fine art to Kung Fu and car chases, and often alone (“Just give me a box of popcorn and I’m fine.”)

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of 12 Step Recovery in Rodney’s life. He might start his day with the Dawn Patrol meeting, the Eye Opener, or his Saturday morning 11th Step group where he learned how to meditate; and if he hadn’t hit an AA meeting in the morning, he might visit one of his noon groups, or drop in on a friend’s sobriety birthday. He meant so much in the lives of so many recovering people but always said that he needed them! Rodney never forgot the abject loneliness of the addict with his drug. He was the most incredible listener, completely present when people were talking. At one point just before being diagnosed with cancer, he was sponsoring 12 different people in AA at the same time. And of course, everyone loved his laugh.

Rodney also attended AA meetings around the world. At a basement meeting in Paris, he set a new sobriety date of May 30, 1983. Rodney had slipped with prescription drugs while climbing in Ecuador.

Holladay Park Hospital is important in Rodney’s life for another reason; it is where he met Michelle Gluck in 1990 with a huge zing! Michelle was getting her own counseling credentials, and they starting dating in March, 1991. Their first date was a night of a full moon and every full noon since has been an anniversary of sorts.

Many friends believe that Michelle saved Rodney from becoming a fussy old bachelor. Rodney, ever the meticulous planner, loved Michelle’s talent for spontaneous travel. “We’re off to France, tomorrow!” he’d say, incredulously. Or from his cell phone, “You won’t believe where we are!” They loved exploring Europe and tracked down Rodney’s relatives in Norway. Their favorite place in Europe was Brugges. Michelle and Rodney were engaged in Ixtapa and married on July 19, 1999 on Tunnels Beach on the North Shore of Kauai, the best day in both their lives. Rodney said that his relationship with Michelle was the greatest adventure of his life.

He kept his grandfather’s climbing spirit alive on mountaintops around the world. The 1980s were Rodney’s primo international climbing years. With climbing pal Dale Scholten, he reached the summits of the 3 highest volcanoes in Mexico in 1981, and the following year Cotopoxi 19, 450’ and Chimborazo 20,520 in Ecuador. Rodney hurt his knee on Mt. Whitney in 1985, but was back in stellar form for his ‘89 summit of Kilimanjaro. In 2004, Rodney and Martin Davis trekked rarely visited sections of the Inca Trail in Peru. And there was always, always Mt. Hood. Rodney earned the Mazama 16 Northwest Peaks Award in 2000.

A book could be written about the highlights of Rodney Keyers’s big life, but here are a just few more: In spring of 1990, Rodney and Martin Davis purchased 26 acres on Dixie Mountain. Rodney loved restoring the property with native trees and working on the trail system they built. He was thrilled to meet his grown daughter, Anne Hillyer, in 1992 and welcome grandson Wolky into the world in 1994.

On a summer Sunday in 2005, while Rodney was hiking on Mt. Hood, he decided he needed to call his doctor the next day. The diagnosis was in within weeks, followed by major surgery. Michelle’s research landed on the new treatment approach for Pancreatic cancer at Virginia Mason hospital in Seattle. Michelle and Rodney lived in a suite at the bottom of the steep hill below the hospital for six weeks. Rodney made it a point of honor to walk up the hill every morning for chemotherapy. Even if he had to stop and rest, even if it flattened him for the rest of the day, he was determined to get up that hill on his own power.

Rodney was back on Columbia Gorge trails in summer of 2006 and planned to climb Mt. Hood the next season. That winter Michelle and Rodney took their all-time favorite cruise, through the Panama Canal. Rodney couldn’t wait for the two European cruises they had booked back to back for August 2008.

But it turned out that what Rodney wanted most dearly of all was to live through his wedding anniversary. And he did.

Pass it on.