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Ruth U. Keeton, 78, longtime councilwoman in Howard County


It was eight years ago that Howard County leaders dedicated the Ruth Keeton Room inside a Columbia community center -- paying tribute to a well-liked liberal who helped ease Howard's transition from rural farmland to bustling suburb.

Mrs. Keeton was there, smiling quietly as admirers presented gifts and kind words. They knew she was leaving politics for "health reasons." As for the specifics of her Alzheimer's disease, they either didn't know or weren't talking about it.

Early next month, Mrs. Keeton's friends and family members will return to the Ruth Keeton Room, this time for her memorial service. She died Sunday in her Columbia home as her husband, Morris, held her hand. She was 78.

Mrs. Keeton served on the County Council from 1974 to 1989, a period of rapid growth and change in Howard.

In Columbia, Mrs. Keeton leaves a legacy as a champion of community causes such as affordable housing. She always wanted Howard County's teachers, police and firefighters to be able to live in wealthy Howard.

"She was a true liberal," Mr. Keeton, 80, said yesterday. "She didn't care what anyone said about it. That's what she was."

She also was liked even by those who didn't like liberalism.

"I grew to respect her very, very much," said conservative Councilman Charles C. Feaga.

At the council offices, Mr. Feaga had an office next to Mrs. Keeton's. He often walked her to her car after late-night meetings.

"She never knew what the word animosity meant," Mr. Feaga said yesterday. "She always saw the good side of someone."

Mrs. Keeton grew up on a farm in Vinton, Iowa. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern University, where in the 1930s she met social activists who helped shape her political views.

She later became a Quaker and worked for the American Friends Service Committee.

She met her future husband outside Chicago in 1943. They married a year later.

"She always had a certain elegance about her dress and manner," recalled Mr. Keeton, who remembered that his wife wore a bright red dress the day he met her.

Mrs. Keeton often took her husband to political events.

"One day I told her, 'Gee, I just stand around and look for someone to talk to. Why don't you quit taking me?' " Mr. Keeton recalled yesterday with a laugh. "She said, 'You have to understand that having a respectable husband is sometimes more important than where you stand on these issues.' "

In 1988, at the age of 69, Mrs. Keeton told her husband that she was starting to forget the names of roads in Western Howard County, Mr. Keeton recalled.

The two went to the doctor, and Mrs. Keeton was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Mr. Keeton began taking care of her.

In recent years, Mr. Keeton had thought his wife had forgotten his name, forgotten she was married.

Then, three years ago, Mrs. Keeton turned to her day nurse.

"Where's Morris?" she asked.

"He went to the doctor," the nurse answered.

"We must go" see him, she said.

The memorial service for Ruth U. Keeton will be held at 10: 30 a.m. Jan. 3 at Kayler Hall, 5440 Old Tucker Road, in the Harper's Choice Village Center in Columbia.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Keeton is survived by two sons, Gary Keeton of Middletown, N.Y., and Scot Keeton of Mount Airy; a daughter, Joan Keeton Young of Eldersburg; two brothers; and five grandchildren.

Friends are asked not to send flowers. Contributions may be sent to the Ruth Keeton Endowment of the Columbia Foundation, which provides loans for low-cost housing (10221 Wincopin Circle, Columbia, 21044); the Ruth Keeton Endowed Scholarship Fund of Howard Community College (10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, 21044); or the Ruth Keeton House, which will provide assisted living for disabled elderly people (5460 Beaverkill Road, Columbia, 21044).

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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