Beautiful Life: Love, Friendship and Loss Inspire Legacy of International Adventure
Stephen Keller would have loved a Jackson Allen road trip.
And Allen says he’ll always treasure his Keller-inspired adventures.
Allen spent the past year studying in Germany and rocking his way through Europe; playing his harmonica at blues clubs in exchange for concert tickets, meals and a place to crash.
Keller didn’t play an instrument and couldn’t carry a tune, but appreciated music and sang his heart out anyway. Like Allen, he traveled through Europe soaking up as much music, food, culture and fun as time allowed.
Twenty-five years ago, Keller’s journey led him to Greece and the beautiful young woman he’d fallen in love with. He embraced his life there and its laid-back pace: Teaching, learning and savoring each experience; and feeling grateful for his family, friends and hard-won health.
But health, like life, comes without a warranty. And the illness that Keller beat as a teenager played a role in his death as a young man.
Allen, from Davidson College’s class of 2020, never met Keller, a 1994 graduate. But they’re eternally linked through a community that spans from Davidson to Germany to Greece, with branches across the United States and abroad.
For more than a decade, Davidson students like Allen have embarked on adventures of a lifetime because people who loved Keller figured that’s exactly what he’d want for them.
The Stephen W. Keller Memorial Scholarship comes with few rules: Travel abroad and immerse yourself in another culture. Foster international friendships. And correspond with and try to visit Keller’s widow and children, who live in a picturesque coastal town in Greece, serve fresh, local food and welcome Davidson travelers like long-lost family members.
“It’s meant for somebody more concerned about the journey than the destination,” says Jon Morris ’94, a close friend of Keller’s and one of the scholarship’s creators. “Someone who has a deep gratitude for life, and doesn’t approach a situation with judgment, but with wonder. That would capture Steve.
“Jackson—playing his way through Europe—has made the most of the experience,” Morris says. “It’s so important to appreciate this amazing thing that life is.
“It’s transient. You’re never going to be 21 again.”
Against the Odds
As the youngest of Alice and George Keller’s three children, Stephen Keller spent his earliest days in a crib in the family’s busy Aberdeen, Maryland, living room, which set him up for a lifetime of sociability. He collected friends everywhere, from school to ballfields to church and summer camp.
In middle school, he and his friends held “club” meetings that often ended as sleepovers. His parents didn’t find out until much later that the boys would sneak out through their kitchen “doggie door” for late night outdoor adventures.
“Stephen lived by the doctrine that you don’t ask for permission, but ask for forgiveness,” George Keller says. His generous, easy-going nature made it difficult to stay angry.
“He loved people, he was a happy person and loved being in the middle of everything,” Alice Keller says. “He was always willing to help out with whatever would help someone else. And he never grew out of that.”
He played volleyball and lacrosse in high school. During a sports physical before his junior year his doctor discovered an irregular heart beat and elevated blood pressure. More tests and a visit with a specialist revealed the grim diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia. He would need a bone marrow transplant to live.
Keller didn’t want people to pity him, so he kept his condition quiet and asked his family to do the same. It was a scary time as his siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents got tested as potential donors. None were a match. The odds of finding a non-related donor were about one in 20,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University Hospital article about Keller.
Railway parts supplier Dennis Cypihot was on a business trip with time to kill when he stopped at a Vancouver clinic to give blood and saw a bone marrow donor registration sign. Cypihot, then 32, donated blood, signed up for the registry and flew home. A year later he got the request, underwent the procedure to remove some of his bone marrow and “a month or two passed and I wondered if it had been worth it.”
It was. Keller received Cypihot’s bone marrow during a successful transplant at Johns Hopkins. When Cypihot later learned that his bone marrow had saved a teenager’s life, “I got down on my knees and said ‘Thank God this helped someone live,’” Cypihot says. “It was a such a tremendous feeling.”
After the transplant, Keller spent three months in the hospital before heading home. Infection was a huge risk, so he went out only for doctors’ appointments and to work for a neighbor’s home-based travel company.
His parents say he remained cheerful, hopeful and grateful.
He learned how to cook—once taking over the kitchen for an ambitious version of venison stew. He watched “Jeopardy!” with his dad, competing to devise the best betting strategies for Final Jeopardy! And he often wore a red plaid flannel “lumberjack” shirt to honor the western Canadian Cypihot, who became a long-distance, lifelong friend.
Day by Day
Keller’s recovery postponed his start at Davidson, but by fall of 1990 he was healthy and on campus, where he made instant friends, joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, “And loved every bit of it,” Alice Keller says.
He eagerly helped lead a new campus effort to recruit students for the national bone marrow registry. Fellow leukemia survivor David Lindsay and his class of 1993 friends founded Davidson’s Project Life and it became a mission for Keller, who put in long hours helping with recruitment drives and fundraisers. Lindsay later founded Project Life Movement, a successful non-profit with the same goal.
“We shared that very distinct bond of needing a bone marrow transplant—it changed both of our lives forever,” Lindsay says. “I remember Steve’s passion—he was a huge part of making Project Life a successful organization that has sustained itself for all these years.”
Keller majored in German and spent his junior year abroad in Wurzburg, Germany, which set his life on a new trajectory. He attended the Julius-Maximilians-Universität zu Würzburg and lived in the Haus Berlin dormitory, forming close friendships with Davidson classmates and students from Italy, Spain, England and other countries.
They stayed up late talking, laughing, drinking beer, playing guitar and belting out classics like “American Pie” and “Only the Lonely.” Keller served as the road trip organizer, piling friends into a rambling Volkswagen van for lively—sometimes harrowing—jaunts to Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland and Morocco.
When Elena Chatziliadou recently shared this picture from college days, it inspired an email group chat and talk of a reunion among friends who became close while studying abroad in Wurzburg, Germany. The crew was on its way to Cologne for Fasching, Germany’s version of Mardis Gras, in February of 1993 when Steve Keller stopped his rambling old Volkswagen van to let his passengers out. The van had many quirks, including a tricky side door, which Keller accidentally ripped off its hinges, leaving them temporarily stuck and laughing hysterically on a rural roadside. Keller eventually fixed the door and they made it to Cologne. “All photos after arrival in Cologne are classified,” says Jon Morris.
On a trip to Cologne, Keller stopped the vintage van on a rural roadside to let some of his passengers relieve themselves. When he opened the sliding door (which only worked from the outside) he accidentally ripped it off its tracks.
“We rolled out of the van, scarcely able to control our guffaws or bladders,” says Morris, who still laughs hard at the memory. “Steve stood there frozen with a VW van door in his hand. It took a good 15 minutes for everyone to settle down and Steve graciously waited for us to collect ourselves.”
Keller fixed the door and the trip continued.
“It was one of the greatest years of my life,” says Morris, now a commercial real estate developer in Charlotte. “We were young and blissfully ignorant of our future responsibilities, which freed us to learn, travel, sing, talk, eat, dance and live life as it happened. We were all about enjoying the experience day by day.”
Charles A. Dana Professor of German Studies Scott Denham was early in his career when he brought his wife, Cathy, and their baby and toddler to Wurzburg with the Davidson students. He taught as a visiting professor and also served as their counselor and advisor. Denham got to know the students well during weekly Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) and takeout Chinese dinners he and Cathy hosted at their tiny, sixth-floor apartment.
“Steve was friendly, wonderfully goofy, and really committed to learning new things in a new place,” Denham says. “He had this sweet smile and was always up and ready for anything. I remember Steve and Jon being really kind to our daughters, Evelyn and Beatrice, who loved when the students came over.”
It was in Germany where Keller met Elena Chatziliadou, an exchange student from Xanthi, Greece. She moved into Haus Berlin that spring and became friends with the group. He fell fast and hard: “He was completely smitten,” Morris says.
Chatziliadou says she was, too.
“His great humor, honesty, friendliness, kindness, caring nature, understanding, laugh and so many other things made me fall in love with him,” she says. “I knew he was the one.“
When his studies in Germany ended that July, Keller went to Greece to meet Chatziliadou’s family and friends. They hit it off and he returned to the United States to begin his final year at Davidson as a man in love.
“That was, without exception before or since, and after all these years, the most I have ever laughed on a journey, anywhere, ever,” McNaught wrote to the group.
And wistfully, from Morris:
“Steve keeps showing up in our lives, just when he needs to. He’s that kind of guy.”
Yin and Yang
The road trips continued.
Keller drove an Econoline van decorated for concerts, festivals, and on one fall weekend, a Baltimore Orioles game and Maryland crab-eating excursion.
The van had giant oriole painted on the side. While most of his Davidson friends slept during the late-night trip to Baltimore, Keller drove and his classmate and close friend Michael Savona rode up front. They stopped for gas and had been driving for a while when they saw a “Welcome to North Carolina” sign. They’d gone south instead of north.
Keller grinned, winked at Savona and gave the “Shush,” signal toward the sleeping passengers, then turned around at the next exit.
“That’s the kind of guy he was,” says Savona, a Vanderbilt University Hospital oncologist whose specialty in leukemia research and treatment was inspired by Keller. “His blood pressure rarely rose. He really knew how to handle situations in a way most of us envy. He was just a joy to be around. He was so happy and when you were with him, you couldn’t help but be happy. I loved him like a brother.”
Later that fall, Chatziliadou came to Davidson and stayed at the house Keller and Savona shared. She studied for her Greek law degree while they went to classes. Where Keller was tall and would talk to anyone, she was petite and initially shy in the new environment:
“It took me a few weeks to get to know her, and then I realized she was the sweetest person—I loved her, too,” Savona says. “They were the perfect Yin and Yang.”
“As different as they were, they were made for each other,” Morris agrees.
Keller brought her home to Maryland to meet his family and spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them.
“She was wonderful,” Alice Keller says. “She fit right in, she pitched right in and we loved her.”
“She was lovely, strong, and smart and we thought he had very good taste,” George Keller adds.
When their son graduated from Davidson the following spring, they bought him a one-way plane ticket to Greece.
He moved to Chatziliadou’s Xanthi hometown, where she was establishing a law practice. Keller taught English at a private school and also tutored. He’d stop every morning to have coffee with Chatziliadou’s grandmother, “YiaYia,” who spoke no English, “and did a wonderful job of making him sound Greek,” Alice Keller says.
Over summer breaks the couple would visit his family and friends in the United States, who in turn made Xanthi their favored travel destination.
“What charmed us the most was that her parents and grandparents and whole family took him in as if he were another son,” George Keller says. “And then they took us in.”
In 1998, the two families and friends gathered on a blazing hot June day in a Xanthi cathedral with no air conditioning for a traditional Greek Orthodox wedding that lasted nearly two hours.
The celebration that followed was anything but stuffy, with guests dancing up to the time the local restaurants opened for breakfast the next morning.
“Our wedding party was a big hit in town, people talked about it for years,” Chatziliadou says. “Many, many family and friends came from Greece and around the world, and we had a ‘Big Fat Greek Wedding,’ indeed.’’
“It was insane, it was just this big party, we were dancing in a big circle,” Morris says. “The town was so open to us, everyone was so hospitable and welcoming. It was so much fun.”
Keller knew everyone in town and kids passing on the street would stop to say hi to “Mr. Steve.” He insisted that American visitors learn the proper Greek way and pronunciation to order iced coffee: “Frappe glico me gala,”—sweet with milk. They’d spend hot afternoons sipping frappes, “talking about nothing,” Savona says.
“He was truly an Epicurean, Carpe Diem kind of guy. When everyone else got out of college and was all about accomplishing the next thing or climbing the ladder, Steve was teaching English in Greece and was the richest one of all.”
Two years after the wedding, the Chatziliadou-Kellers celebrated the birth of a healthy son, George. Keller reveled in fatherhood and formed an inseparable bond with his son, waking up for late night feedings, dressing in matching Halloween costumes and holding him close as they’d wade in the ocean. In the summer of 2003, the couple was thrilled to learn they were having another baby.
He never got to see his daughter.
In the fall of 2003, Keller developed a severe headache with a high fever that sent him to the hospital and into a coma. The diagnosis was bacterial meningitis. As a leukemia patient before his bone marrow transplant, his spleen had ruptured, which limited his body’s ability to clear harmful bacteria.
The Kellers headed to Greece immediately, talking and praying by his bedside with Chatziliadou and her family. He died several weeks later at the age of 32. A somber group of family and friends returned to Greece for a funeral there, and later at his childhood church in Maryland. Many of his college friends also gathered for a memorial service at Davidson.
In March of 2004, Katherine Alice was born.
The vast distance could have made some families grow apart. But the Kellers traveled to Greece to welcome their new granddaughter and continued to visit regularly; and Chatziliadou and the children would come to the United States to see them. To this day, the Kellers call Chatziliadou’s extended clan “our Greek family.”
George is now 18 and Katherine Alice is 15. Every summer they spend a few weeks with their American grandparents in Asheville, North Carolina, and visit their dad’s sister, Karen Thomas, brother David, and cousins who live in Pennsylvania and the Washington, D.C. area. In between, they talk through face-to-face web apps.
George is a sophomore at the University of Crete and plans to become an astrophysicist—a nod to his Keller grandfather, a retired physicist. Katherine Alice, 15, is a 10th-grader who loves math. Both hope to study abroad. George likes Johns Hopkins University. Katherine Alice has three potential colleges on her list: New York University, Georgetown and Davidson. Both speak Greek, and thanks to tutors, fluent English.
While American visitors rave about the food in Xanthi, George and Katherine Alice have a teenage perspective. They prefer the vast selection of barbecue, burgers, tacos, Chinese food and pizza the United States offers.
They like spending time with their American relatives and hearing stories about their father. They’ve also watched old home movies and learned more from people who knew him, including Cypihot, the bone marrow donor, who calls and sends Christmas and birthday cards and presents. While they have no memory of their father, they know this, George says:
“He was very kind, and very pleasant to whoever he met, and he loved us very much.”
The Keller Fellers
After his death, Keller’s devastated friends, including Morris and Savona, established a memorial at Davidson.
Working with Denham, they crafted a scholarship that gives students studying abroad in German or classics programs enough money to extend their travel beyond the academic year. Each “Keller Feller” receives about $3,000, which gives them anywhere from a few weeks to a few months of extra travel.
Allen, a 2019 Keller Feller and German Studies major, attended Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg. The scholarship allowed Allen to immerse himself in the European blues music scene. He’s played drums since he was eight, and at 14 picked up the harmonica and has jammed in Atlanta blues clubs since high school.
In Europe, he saw and performed with some of his favorite musicians, including the Chicago-based Kilborn Alley Blues Band. He considers German blues guitarist Kai Strauss a friend, and met and talked music with blues stars like Curtis Salgado.
“It was a very rewarding, life-changing experience,” Allen says. “It opened up the European music scene to me—I never realized how vibrant it was. I also met some great friends whose couches I can sleep on if I’m passing through.”
Allen visited Chatziliadou, Katherine Alice, George and their extended family in Greece. They toured Thessaloniki before heading to Xanthi, where the family has a nearby beach house.
“I talked to Elena’s parents who spoke no English, and were very warm and welcoming. George and Katherine translated. Elena’s mom cooked fresh vegetables from the garden and she made these really good grilled oyster mushrooms with spices and balsamic vinegar and lemon juice,’’ Allen says. “When I got home, I made it for my parents and they loved it.
“It was so pleasant,” he says. “I’m so grateful—and I got a great feel for what kind of person Steve Keller was.”
Other Keller Fellers describe their journeys as once-in-a-lifetime special.
Emma Cardwell ’17, spent a semester abroad with the Duke in Berlin program and used the scholarship to travel to Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland and England.
“It was such a huge growth experience, I had some guidance but I largely planned it by myself and traveled by myself, then met friends along the way,” Cardwell says. She especially loved her time in Xanthi, where her hosts were “so warm, open, welcoming and full of life and energy.”
Chatziliadou brought Cardwell to the famous Xanthi Bazaar, a traditional Greek flea and food market. They sat on the beach talking about Germany and Davidson and Chatziliadou’s fond memories of both places. They talked about how Keller had embraced Greek culture and become a beloved member of the community.
“Even though I wasn’t a family member, I felt like one,” says Cardwell, who later wrote about that trip: “There is no room to worry when you have places to see and cultures to dive into.”
Cardwell taught English in Austria after graduation. She now lives in the Philadelphia area and recently became director of programs at the American Association of Teachers of German.
She keeps in touch with Chatziliadou through emails, Facebook and Christmas cards. She says the couple’s story is one of the most beautiful she’s ever heard:
“Traveling like that and making friendships and falling in love—that’s the stuff that makes life worth living.”
Chatziliadou said that she and her family cherish their time with the Keller Fellers.
“They bring some of the Davidson spirit here to us every year,” she says. “It helps us keep our bonds with our friends, professors and Davidson family that always had such a special place in Steve’s heart.”
Nicole Keroack, from the class of 2008, was the first Keller Feller. She continued traveling on her own after spending a semester in Europe with a Davidson contingent of 20, touring architectural sites in Italy, Germany, Tunisia and Greece.
Before the trip, she met Keller’s friends and parents at a dinner hosted by Denham.
“His friends stressed that this was the chance for adventure and misadventure—it sounds like Steve had a few—and it gave me the opportunity to wander,” Keroack says. “I probably would have just gone home if I didn’t get the scholarship. It was so empowering to travel by myself in a foreign country. This was the thing that made my Davidson experience so different and cool.”
She befriended and traveled with two German students, toured former concentration camps and attended the renowned Basel art show in Switzerland. By the time she arrived in Xanthi, she was exhausted.
“It was such a relief to get there, after all the nights in hostels and hotels, to be in someone’s house was so nice,” Keroack says. “Elena and her whole family welcomed me and treated me like a long-lost cousin. There were so many conversations and so much food—it was ‘Nicole, you have to try this,’ and I tasted all kinds of food I’d never eaten before.”
Katherine Alice, who was three at the time, offered Keroack some beauty tips. “I had been traveling and not wearing any makeup, and she gave me a makeover. It was so precious.”
Keroack, now an architect in Washington, D.C., says that visit to Greece remains one of her best memories.
“Elena did not know me, and I was met with total warmth and open arms all because her husband went to school with these guys who’d sent me there,” she says. “It was like six degrees of separation—all of the dots connected.
“It was magical.”
- November 4, 2019