Humble veteran honored at elementary school

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.

"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."

Keller works in Arlington, Va. and takes classes at University of Maryland University College as he pursues a master's degree in information technology, which he is scheduled to receive in August 2013.

He earned a second bachelor's degree from UMBC in information technology in 2011, said his mother, Betsy Keller.

One of Darius' favorite memories was two months ago when he played basketball with Keller and the game ended in a tie score.

Paulette Tanzymore, Darius' mother, volunteers at Hillcrest and sees the impact Keller has on the students.

"When I'm here, the children are so engaged with him," she said. "He really takes the time with each child to make sure that they're all engaged in their classwork or fun activities."

"It's the smile for me. He has that wonderful smile that is just so friendly," Tanzymore said.

It's not uncommon for Darius to come home and talk about something exciting that happened with Keller, Tanzymore said.

"Serving our country is one thing, but serving our children is the best thing," Tanzymore said.

So much does Keller enjoy working with the children that he considered becoming a school teacher before settling on a career in information technology after returning from Afghanistan, Betsy Keller said.

Betsy Keller said her son has always been willing to pitch in and help out, but thinks his ability to connect with the students comes from his background in athletics.

"The kids, I think, are really interested in his service, but even before he was in the service because he was in sports," Betsy Keller said, noting her son was a pitcher at UMBC. "He's always been the kind of kid who's always been caring and giving."

Fields agrees that Keller's experience in sports and the military both play a role in why he is so effective with the children.

"He gives them positive reinforcement. What a role model he is," Fields said. "He says he's going to come, and he always comes."

Betsy Keller said her son always honors his commitments and keeps things like his volunteer work private because he doesn't want to appear a braggart.

Whatever celebration the Kellers have after the ceremony, which will be attended by a few family members, will likely be brief because Michael Keller has class that evening.

But Betsy Keller said her son will likely have many more opportunities to celebrate with the students at Hillcrest.

Betsy Keller recalled her son saying, "No matter what job I have, I'm going to make sure I come up to Hillcrest."

This story has been updated.

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