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Mary Ellen Keith: Reaching out

May 12, 2010
By CAPERTON?TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

Merry voices sail out across the field, shuttlecocks wing through the air, soccer balls slam against shins, horseshoes clink one against the other and frisbees wing toward outstretched arms.

A good-natured man, lying on his back, is covered by a jumble of the small arms and legs of children scrambling over him as if he is Gulliver, himself. Other youngsters race back and forth to the "stagecoach" (misidentified by adults who think it but a large boulder). A baseball game is in play in one corner, basketball in another. Woven through the confusion, dogs and cats slink about, seeking quiet shelter.

Tables laden with chicken, ham, vegetables, salads and bread sag under their heavy loads. Delicious aromas invite the crowd of about 50 to take a break and come eat. Filling their plates, they grab seats wherever space permits, be it chair, stool or the ground.

Article Photos

Mary Ellen Keith
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

Folks in a passing car gaze curiously at the celebration. Is this a fish and game club, a town picnic, a school or church outing?


It is just Mary Ellen Keith's family and friends enjoying Easter Day together. If the passing car was to stop and the passengers were to ask what was happening, they would be invited to join the party and share the meal. For, to Mary Ellen, life is all about reaching out to others, friends and strangers alike, letting no one suffer loneliness or hardship.

Her home has always been a gathering place.

"Nobody spends a holiday alone if we know about it," said her daughter, Sara Besaw.

She and other family members enjoy helping Mom with these events. Mary Ellen's entire life has been a testament to this philosophy. Similar scenes have been repeated countless times at her Vermontville home of some 60 years. Though Mary Ellen's family has now grown to include in-laws, grandchildren and great- grandchildren, most still live in the area and stay in close contact.

One of 12 children, Mary Ellen grew up in Vermontville, attended local schools, and in 1949, married Pat Keith, a childhood acquaintance from the same village.

After he served a stint in the military, Pat and Mary Ellen moved to the estate of Fred Schwartz in Lake Placid to work as caretakers. A couple of years later, they bought their own home in Vermontville, one that had been in Pat's family for years and was in need of a good deal of renovation. With Pat's carpentry expertise and extra help from the extended family, the house slowly evolved from a three-bedroom dwelling to an eight-bedroom one. There was nothing fancy or showy about it, just a warm, safe, hospitable place furnished with Pat's beautifully crafted furniture - a home versus a house.

Starting in the 1950s, Pat and Mary Ellen had eight children, after which time she proclaimed the next one would be readymade. Number nine was adopted at 12 years of age. Listening to their children's concern about a lack of homes for those less fortunate, Pat and Mary Ellen went on to become foster parents for seven teenagers.

For 25 years, in addition to being a family home their place served as a proprietary (nursing home) for the elderly. To this day, one of the clients (for whom Mary Ellen is an advocate) still returns for regular visits, celebrations and holidays. Sadly, in 1990, Pat died. Mary Ellen still lives in the same house, a place not only full of memories but still vibrating with the lively turbulence of family and friends.

How did the two of them manage all those years? "You just do it," said Mary Ellen.

In order to take care of others, she believed first of all in the importance of looking after one's own health. This approach served them well, for both she and Pat seemed to have endless energy. Mary Ellen worked at the hospital for 36 years, often full time, first as a nurse's aide and later as an LPN.

Pat worked for 30 years at Gendron's Lumber Company.

Their home was filled with love; pets, kids, guests and laughter filled the space. "Everyone pitched in to make it run smoothly," said Sara. "Everyone was assigned chores."

In case a child forgot what was expected of him or her, a chart stuck to the refrigerator door made it all clear.

Sara remembers certain sensible rules were maintained: no running down the stairs; clean, pressed clothes for school each morning; everyone present for a sit-down evening meal at which no complaining or arguing was allowed; and guests were to be always warmly welcomed.

If there was not enough table space, more leaves were added; if there were not enough dining chairs, boards were laid across the chairs to create long benches. If there were not enough beds for all the children, they shared.

"We were used to it; it was no big deal," commented Sara about growing up in such a busy and gregarious household. "It was great fun. There was plenty going on."

You might think that a nursing job along with managing a full house would be enough responsibility for Mary Ellen, but she wasn't content to stop there. Extending her desire to help others, she ran for the Town of Franklin supervisor, believing she could bring positive change to the area. In 1980, she won the election, becoming the first woman in the county to hold that position. During her 17- year tenure, she brought a number of improvements to the town, some of which included: building a highway garage; creating a youth program as well as a food pantry; establishing Kate Mountain Par;k and helping residents acquire affordable housing.

In addition, Mary Ellen, with a keen interest in the town of Franklin's history, initiated a series of booklets, nine in total, which carry recollections and accounts of the area's past. Called "They Told me so," edited by Teresa Eshelman and available at the town of Franklin town hall, the booklets contain valuable facts and oral histories of local residents.

Mary Ellen, still energetic and looking far younger than her years, is now busy writing a family history for her children, saving these charming accounts under the title, "Precious Clutter."

Her days are filled by helping those in need, working at the hospital and volunteering at Adirondack Medical Center-Mercy. When not otherwise engaged, she enjoys inviting friends and family for meals at her home. She is a most impressive woman. Would that we all have such energy and spirit!


Based on an interview with Mary Ellen. Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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