Charlie Keller Obituary

Charles Marquis Keller, born November 25, 1936, passed away at his home on April 17, 2020 with family at his side. He grew up in Long Beach, California where he enjoyed neighbors and the undeveloped spaces of the area at the time.  His lifelong appreciation for craftsmanship developed during years of projects with his father. He had a warm sense of humor and a gentle, kind disposition that endured throughout his life.

Charlie attended Long Beach High School and Long Beach City College and graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts—with expertise as a trombonist in Music and a major in Anthropology—in 1958. He went on to obtain a Master’s degree in Archaeology at the University of Missouri and his PhD in Anthropology from the University of California Berkeley in 1966.

He served on the faculty in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Illinois from 1967 to 1992.  He led archaeological excavations in South Africa and Tanzania, discovering an especially rich site at Montagu Caves which continues to influence the understanding of early human behavioral variability.  He also published scholarly works on African archeology and the dynamic union of mind and hand in the evolution of tool use in pre-modern and modern civilizations. During his academic career, he sought out an iron-working apprenticeship in New Mexico and took up artisan blacksmithing and tool making.  Keller’s first-hand historical knowledge of tools enriched his teaching as well as his life. “I want my students to understand the complexity of historical crafts. These techniques require as much head as hand.” By combining practical experience with analysis and teaching, Charlie gained and could convey to his students a deep and subtle appreciation of early technology and preindustrial craftsmanship.  Outside of academia and blacksmithing, he was an avid cyclist, first riding the hills of Berkeley and San Francisco and later completing century runs across the Illinois prairie.  

Following his tenure at the University, Charlie worked at what is now the Museum of the Grand Prairie in Mahomet as a collection’s manager. In this capacity he curated an exhibit still in place that focuses on the Cheesebro blacksmithing shop from about 1910 in Sangamon, Illinois. He was a member of the Midwest Open Air Museums Organization and served in various roles on their Coordinating Council, including at one point, President.

Charlie retired from the University early to concentrate on the craft of iron work in an historic blacksmith shop built in 1869 in Newman, Illinois, which he later placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Streibich Blacksmith Shop. Charlie created a business, Forge & Anvil, through which he produced historic artifacts for museums and living history sites over three decades. He was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, including This Old House in 1998. Several PBS documentaries chronicled his craftsmanship in iron, and Charlie himself authored numerous articles on his craft. 

His love of working with his hands extended to gunsmithing, especially black powder and its accoutrements. He loved participating in period reenactments and historic festivals. He also built, with the help of other craftsman, a beautiful cabin in the woods in rural Illinois to which he would go to restore his balance and energy.

He was preceded in death by his father Marquis Victor Keller, mother Ester Ruthe Russell, and his daughter Jennifer Anne and will be missed by his wife, Janet, sons Mark (Amber) and John (Monica), son-in-law Dan Wyman (Marcela) and their children Leila Ruthe, Delanie Marie, Lachlan Charles, Yelena Marquis, and Adrianna Seeger.