The Families of Adam Keith

“Once upon a time ...”, family facts and tales


The school superintendent

David Sorrell Keith [1847-1929]



Ancestry: Adam Keith1>Adam Keith2>John Keith3>John Russell Keith4>David Sorrell Keith5

Did you ever see Professor David S. Keith stop to speak to a child on the street? Nothing leonine in his appearance, surely, but for all that he was in possession of a masterful power and marvelous magnetism that easily made him a master of men. There was no blatant self-assertion in his manner or pompous assumption of dignity, but, as an organizer, leader and inspirer of team work among his subordinates, he was unsurpassed.


Many years ago the writer was one day crossing the Twelfth Street Bridge, when he saw striding toward him the then new superintendent of the city schools. His face had a serious expression and, as he strode along, his head was bowed in thought, probably pondering some of the perplexing problems of his new position. Suddenly his attention was attracted by a crying child. A little one, with arms and face resting on the iron railing of the bridge, was sobbing out some childish grief. In an instant the professor's hand was on her shoulder and the smile that lighted his face, as she looked up, was so contagious that it was instantly reflected in her own. A very little thing, say you? But the man who has in the depths of his being the sort of magnetism that can dry the tears of a child with a smile and bring comfort with a glance is no ordinary man. He has in him the potentialities of greater things.


Professor Keith came here a generation ago. The school children of that day are now middle-aged men and women, but the kindly affection they acquired for him as children has never been dissipated. For a short while he was a teacher and upon the death of Superintendent Miller was elected to the vacancy, and under his management the little schools of the village developed into a system of education that any municipality might be proud of. For, no matter what interested detractors may say of the shortcomings of the public schools, in all the world's history there was never better educational work accomplished than is being done right here. While some other departments of municipal work may have lagged, or false steps taken that had to be retracted, the most venomous critic could not find much in the progress of the city's schools, either in the matter of buildings or methods employed, measuring them by results, to cavil over. Superintendent Keith was neither a reckless innovator nor an ultraconservative. His business sagacity was great and both as an educator and business manager he excelled. Whether he was selecting a teacher for a difficult place or locating a site for a needed school building, his judgment was equally sound.


In slang parlance, he "was always on the job." School directors, as well as teachers, always found him "guide, philosopher and friend." While he never usurped any powers that were not his and never assumed dictatorial manners, he always kept his eye upon the growing needs of the district, and it was more frequently he, than the directors, that saw when the next school building would be needed, fixed the exact locality where it would be most convenient to the largest number of pupils and saw to it that the needed plot of ground was secured before advance in values made the price prohibitive.


Modest and retiring in demeanor, he was not an orator and never sought public acclaim, but in the council chamber and at the directors' board he generally had the final word, for the reason that it was usually obvious to the dullest intellect that his word was weighty and his logic sound. This, of course, involved probity of character and sincerity of purpose. No man can serve two masters, and there was no petty politics or personal ambition mixed up with his motives. He was serving the public faithfully, loyally and well. He loved his work for its own sake and followed the beckoning finger of duty wherever it led him without much thought of personal consequences. Even, without much mental acumen such transparently honest men always have weight with their fellows, and when there is added such keenness of business strategy as Professor Keith possessed, coupled with strong personal magnetism, they are bound to be a power in the community.


So, outside of his school duties, he was a source of strength to the entire business fabric of the city. There was probably no other financial force that contributed so much to the material growth of the town as the building association, and in these enterprises he was a conspicuous factor. His organizing talents found congenial expression in this direction and many a poor man acquired a home because Professor Keith advised, counseled and pointed out the way. This community owes much to a few men who organized and managed these associations, and to their honor, be it said, none of them proved faithless to their trusts.


But great as was his business genius, he would never have found his true vocation in any other field than the school room. A ripe scholar and original thinker, his sympathetic nature peculiarly fitted him for a teacher and endowed him with the power to impart knowledge to others. He instinctively knew how to open the windows of the darkened mind, to inspire the ambition of the sluggish and win the confidence of the timid. He had par excellence the faculty of placing himself in the other's place and analyzing the processes of the other's mind. He was not a perfunctory crammer with facts, but an enthusiastic developer of ideas. He did not regard education as an end, but as a means thereto. He had no notion of so loading either pupils or teachers with the weight of their armor that they had no strength left to wield their weapons. He wanted to equip and not oppress them; to place in their hands the power that would enable them to subdue the hostile forces of the earth and go out into life with a cheerful mien, able to hew out their own destinies and leave the world better because they had lived in it.


But the greatest gift with which he was endowed was his ability to organize and keep at the highest point of efficiency a teaching staff. Strong, patient and kind and, with an ability to measure the relative powers of men and women that never failed him, he was always able to fit the worker to the task. Recognizing the fact that the secret of success was harmony with environment, by the alchemy of sympathetic kindness, aided by his instinctive knowledge of human nature, he was able to convert failures into successes, and by a skillful adjustment enable a desponding teacher to snatch victory out of apparent defeat.


How many old teachers are there in the Altoona schools today who will not remember times when the superintendent came to the rescue with a bit of advice or encouragement that brought order out of chaos and caused the mountain to sink to the level of the mole hill? He never nagged, or maliciously placed a teacher in an impossible position. He played no favorites and always stood ready to help those who needed it most.


As the years grew upon him, he became more conservative in business matters pertaining to the schools, and who shall say that his judgment was not just as sound as it had ever been? By his wise forethought and prudent conserving of funds he saved to the school district during the years of his administration many thousands of dollars and always hesitated about radical departures into unknown fields. He understood the struggles that the people of the city had gone through and was always against imposing needless burdens. There is a world of tendency on the part of the self-satisfied youngster, who thinks he sees a new light and imagines that he is living in a suddenly regenerated world, to criticize the methods of the veteran and call him a mossback, not realizing that, after all, it is only the same old straw that his predecessor has threshed over a thousand times, looking for the possible grain of wheat. He may find the new grain by a new process, but it is likely to prove costly.


No matter what the future may have in store, the past, at least, is secure, and the keen, kindly and capable man who for so many years held the destiny of the Altoona schools in his hands can rest upon his laurels, with the full assurance that the great public has appreciated his services and will ever hold him in the kindly remembrance that he so justly deserves.


Source: Biographical and Portrait Cyclopedia of Blair Co, PA: Samuel T. Wiley, Philadelphia,1892


PROF. DAVID S. KEITH, a veteran from the ranks of Blair county teachers, who has served since 1874 as superintendent of the public schools of Altoona, is a son of John and Mary (Shiffler) Keith, being born March 26, 1847, at Woodbury, Bedford County, Pa. The Keith's are of Scotch extraction. Adam Keith, the great-grandfather of the subject of this sketch, was born in England, from which he came to America at an early day, and settled in Pennsylvania. He was among the early settlers of Huntingdon County, where he lived until his death, at an advanced age. He married and reared a family of three children, one son and two daughters. John Keith (grandfather) was born in Hopewell Township, that county. He was a farmer by occupation, and resided in Huntingdon county up to a short time prior to his death, when he removed to the State of Wisconsin, town of Lancaster, where he died about 1858, having attained man's allotted age of three-score and ten years. He was a whig in politics, and a member of the Methodist Episcopal church. He married a Miss Russell, by whom he had a family of five children. Their son, John Keith (father) was also a native of Huntingdon County, but moved to Bedford County in 1840, and located in the neighborhood of Woodbury. There he resided until 1871, when he removed to Taylor Township, Blair County, and died at his home in that township in 1874, in the sixty-third year of his age. He was a school teacher during the earliest part of his life, in which vocation he won considerable reputation, but in later years became a farmer. He was an active and influential member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and a republican in politics. He was elected and served as township auditor several terms. He married Mary Shiffler, a native of Blair County, and to them was born a family of six children. She was a devoted Christian woman, a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and died in 1889, having nearly reached her sixty-sixth birthday.


David S. Keith was reared principally at Woodbury, Bedford county, where he attended the common schools until his fifteenth year, when he entered Juniata academy at Martinsburg, this county, and later took courses of training in the Normal school at Millersville, finishing his education in the collegiate branches under the instruction of Prof. S. M. McGreery, of Indiana, this State. When only sixteen years of age, David S. Keith began his career as a teacher, having charge of a district school in Huntingdon county. He taught a number of terms in this and Huntingdon counties, being thus engaged until 1871, when he was offered a position as teacher of the grammar department of the public schools at Indiana, Pennsylvania. Accepting this position, he remained there until 1873, at which time he became principal of the High school at Altoona, and served some fourteen months in that capacity, until the resignation of Prof. John Miller, superintendent of the public schools of the city of Altoona, in 1874, when he elected to succeed Professor Miller, and resigned the principalship of the High school to accept the responsibilities of the larger trust. Since that year Mr. Keith has served continuously as superintendent of the public schools of Altoona, having been re-elected seven times in succession. This fact tells more eloquently than any words we could use, of the energy, ability, and fidelity with which Professor Keith has devoted himself to the up-building and improvement of the public schools of this city, and of the popularity he enjoys in recognition of these services. On the 13th of June, 1883, Professor Keith was married to Margaret Crawford, a daughter of Armstrong Crawford, of Tyrone, this county. To them have been born two children, both sons: Charles Russell and Ralph Crawford. In his political faith Professor Keith is a republican, and gives his party a steady support on all National and State issues, though never actively engaged in practical politics. He is inclined toward independence in local matters. He is a member of the First Presbyterian church of Altoona, and has served for some years as an elder in that church. He is also a member of Mountain Lodge, No. 281, Free and Accepted Masons, and of Cove Lodge, No. 368, Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Pen Pictures of Friends and Reminiscent Sketches

by J. N. Tillard


Altoona, PA: William F. Gable & Co., Mirror Press, 1911


Creative Genius and Organizer


PROF. DAVID S. KEITH, Who Laid The Foundation for Our Splendid Public School System, Can Rest Upon His Laurels


THE late Bishop Fowler, in his lecture on "Great Deeds of Great Men," declared that "an army of sheep with a lion for a leader would accomplish more than an army of lions with a sheep for a leader." While the simile is not exactly applicable to the subject of this sketch, yet the great truth implied as to the leadership of men is luminously stated in the epigram.