Michael Keller

Michael Keller, right, gets set to pass to Hillcrest Elementary School student Kechaun Colbert, while Darius DuBose, 11, watches on the playground of the Catonsville school. (Staff photo by Jen Rynda / April 12, 2012)

When Michael Keller walks into Hillcrest Elementary School, he becomes "Mr. Mike," a friend and mentor to students at the school since before most of the currently-enrolled students were born.

According to Hillcrest teachers Betty Fields and Tori Fonder, Keller has no ulterior motive for his decade of service at the school, just the desire to point first- through fifth-graders who need extra support in the right direction.

Both teachers said they feared that if Keller knew that it was he and not the students receiving extra attention, he would shy away from it.

That's why Fields and Fonder kept secret the citation that Del. James Malone, who represents District 12A, which includes Catonsville, presented Keller at the school at 2 p.m. on Wednesday.

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"What an honor and a privilege it was not only to be with a volunteer but (someone who) is truly truly a hero," Malone said the day after the ceremony.

"He's very low-key. He doesn't like a lot of attention," Fonder said. "He wants to come and do his job and then leave."

Fonder quickly corrected herself noting that it's not a job, it's strictly on a volunteer basis that Keller has been showing up three hours each week at the school on Frederick Road.

Keller, a Catonsville resident, began volunteering at Hillcrest when, as a sophomore, he and other members of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, baseball team participated in a mentoring program.

"He'd come home and he'd say he loved being up there," recalled Betsy Keller of her son's first impressions of volunteering at the school. "He just loves that particular class and helping those kids."

Though his baseball career ended when he graduated with a sociology degree in 2004, Keller continued to return to Hillcrest each week, except for during his years of service in the Marine Corps Reserves from 2005 to 2011.

Keller, a corporal, served in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 and in Afghanistan in 2009.

"There's just something special about Mr. Mike," Fonder said, using the name the students call Keller. "He's very sincere and humble and there's just something about him."

Spending 15 minutes with Keller, 30, is a prize for students with good behavior.

Pairs of students play basketball with Keller, a Hillcrest alum, and talk about recent decisions they have made, Fonder said.

For Hillcrest Elementary School fifth-graders Kechaun Colbert and Darius DuBose, March 28 was just like every other Wednesday with Keller as they played basketball, had a catch and chatted.

"When he comes, he asks us how our day's been and it's usually good if we get to go with him," said Kechaun, who entered Hillcrest at the end of third grade.

"He comes every week and he says he doesn't get paid, but he still does it anyway," Kechaun said. "That means he likes us."

Kechaun said that after he graduates from Hillcrest this year, he's going to miss going to Opie's Soft Serve and Snowballs in the spring and going to a women's UMBC basketball game with Keller and other classmates.

Darius, who has worked with Keller for three years, said he appreciated that Keller takes time out of his schedule just to spend a few hours with him and his classmates.

"He doesn't have to take off to come see us," Darius said. "So it feels good."