A few years ago, I found my way to Ballinger, Texas, a little town south of San Angelo. It sits a far piece off the interstate, and nothing of great historical importance happened there. It is simply a little town like thousands of little towns across the country. However, it was a place that I needed to go, and the need was to walk into Keel Drug Store.
This is the story of Keel Drug; the family who used to own it; and the reason I needed to walk through its doors.
Gene Keel was raised at the Masonic Home Orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas during the Great Depression. As the name implies, it was filled with kids who had little chance to succeed in the world, and Little Gene Keel was one of them. However, good things happened for him at the school. Although girls and boys were kept apart, he met his future wife at the home. He also found a chance with the football coach, Rusty Russell.
The story of the football team is a fascinating one and has been chronicled by Jim Dent in Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mights Who Ruled Texas Football. A team that could not afford a football to practice with defeated almost everyone that they played, from small schools not much different from them to the big schools in the cities. Little Gene Keel was the quarterback for those teams and parlayed that experience into the store pictured above.
Attending Rice University on a football scholarship, Gene got married; became a pharmacist; and opened a drug store in Ballinger. He became well-known in Ballinger for providing medicine to those who couldn’t afford it and for serving the best treats in town at his soda fountain.
Gene Keel grew up in the Depression and lived in Ballinger, Texas. I grew up in the 1980s and live in the middle of Tennessee. What’s my connection?
Gene’s son, Johnny Keel was raised in the aisles of Keel Drug and on the links of the local country club. He grew up with his dad’s personality and flair but not with his football abilities. Johnny’s talents were with the golf club, and they took him to the golf team at the University of Texas.
Johnny stayed in Austin; opened a chain of health clubs; and became well-known throughout the city. Of course, owning a health club involves more than just running the day-to-day operations. At times, you have to attend conventions to keep up with the latest innovations. It was at one of these conventions that Johnny met my aunt, the owner of a local health club.
Johnny married my aunt, and, after some time living in Austin, they returned to middle Tennessee. Johnny became as well-known here as he was in Texas. He became involved in the community, and almost everyone came to like him for his enthusiastic outlook on life. He was fun-loving and wanted everyone else to have fun along with him.
I can’t remember all of the times that he and I sat at a Blackjack table together. Johnny always sat on first base, and I always sat on third base. He also tried to pass on his love of golf to me. We played many times, but I never grasped the game. Despite my lack of ability, we always had a great time.
Johnny’s outlook on life was brighter than anyone else I have ever known, and that outlook was needed when he was diagnosed with cancer. I will not go through the details, but he and my aunt fought the disease together. They tried everything to beat cancer and convinced everyone that they were going to succeed. They succeeded for ten years until Johnny could fight no more.
That’s why I went to Keel Drug in Ballinger, Texas. Johnny talked about his hometown so much that I wanted to see it for myself. Perhaps, it would help me to understand the strength and positive outlook that came from him everyday. Perhaps, there was something in Ballinger that made him help others who had cancer while he needed help himself. However, none of that was in Ballinger. It was in Johnny, and, he got it from Gene.
Johnny was still alive when I went to Ballinger, and my plan was to call him from the store. However, I couldn’t get a cell signal in the little town and had to call him when I got near a tower.
Johnny is gone, but his memory remains with everyone who knew him. His work to help others also remains with Go Johnny Go, a 5K fundraiser that my aunt started after his death. If you would like to donate or learn more about Johnny, then go to www.gojohnnygorun.com.