St. Louis Park council memorializes Keller in emotional meeting
The popular St. Louis Park baseball player who died after a struggle with leukemia despite his willingness to became a pioneer as a recipient of a new form of stem cell treatment will have his name memorialized at a ballpark where he played.
After an emotional hearing, St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs fought back tears as he announced a unanimous City Council vote Jan. 7 to name a ballfield at Dakota Park after Derrick Keller, who died last June at the age of 18.
St. Louis Park policy guidelines state that an individual must have died at least two years before consideration of a naming request, but the City Council did not bother discussing the guideline before voting to approve the request.
Private donations amounting to $18,000 will go toward a new scoreboard recognizing the ballfield as Derrick Keller Field.
After hearing testimony from Derrick’s father and his fellow baseball players, Councilmember Steve Hallfin said, “I’m overwhelmed with the passion I see in this room not only for Derrick Keller but for the community of St. Louis Park that Derrick really embodied.”
Hallfin, who knew Derrick, said, “It’s just a privilege to be on the council and have the honor to approve this.”
Derrick had played baseball with the St. Louis Park High School baseball team, the St. Louis Park Junior Legion team, the St. Louis Park Senior Legion team and the St. Louis Park Town Team. He had planned to play baseball at Southwest Minnesota State University.
Before the vote, his father, Bob Keller, said, “He was good. I want to say one other thing, OK? Besides baseball, Derrick had a great character, and I think naming this field would be just wonderful.”
A naming application states, “Derrick’s many coaches and teammates describe him as the most dedicated and humble baseball player on their team. For such a young man, Derrick was of remarkable character; revered by his fellow teammates and younger players who still hope to emulate him. He shared his time and energy with them tirelessly.”
Baseball players in St. Louis Park are still wearing orange bracelets paying tribute to Keller, the application notes.
“Derrick was a larger than life presence in the St. Louis Park baseball community,” the application states. “His sense of humor and good nature were legendary among anyone who met him and he had an infectious way of bringing a sense of fun wherever he was. He was always ready to lend a hand with whatever needed to be done.”
Courage in treatment
Derrick’s character showed through in the way he dealt with learning he had leukemia the day after his 18th birthday in 2011, Bob Keller said. Additional tests determined he had a case of leukemia that chemotherapy could not treat.
“He had the worst possible scenario, but he always stayed tough through that; he always had his head up.” Bob Keller said.
Derrick volunteered for a new stem cell technique developed through the work of Dr. John Wagner, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota who also serves as director of the Division of Hematology-Oncology and Blood and Marrow Transplantation and co-director of the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Minnesota. The technique is designed to greatly expand the number of white blood cells.
Bob Keller said the technique had been used on lab animals but never on a human being.
He said his son was adamant about volunteering. As an 18-year-old, he did not need parental permission. During a consultation with Wagner, his father said Derrick insisted on signing documents immediately despite Wagner’s encouragement that he take more time to consider his decision.
Visibly moved and pausing to take deep breaths as he spoke, Bob Keller said of his son, “He said the reason he wanted to be the first human to do this was because he said even if I die, this will help the next group of children that have leukemia, and he meant it. And I wanted to say that because besides baseball, that’s who Derrick Keller was.”
Hallfin noted the technique showed promise and that Derrick had not died directly of leukemia but of complications related to his weakened immune system.
“He actually did beat leukemia, and that always goes a little unnoticed,” Hallfin said. “The story that Bob just told is absolutely true, and this procedure is already helping other people. So he already – it’s already being paid forward.”
Helping his peers
St. Louis Park baseball players who knew Derrick also testified regarding his generous character. They attended the meeting in large numbers to support the naming honor.
Joe Burney, a sophomore at St. Louis Park High School, related a story about how Derrick hared his baseball knowledge with youth.
“When I was in eighth grade, I idolized Derrick Keller,” Joe related. “One day, I got the guts to message this incredible senior shortstop on Facebook to see if he would help me out.”
For three hours on a Friday night, Derrick worked with Joe on his hitting skills, Joe said. Derrick continued to follow the younger player’s progress and asked him about his games.
“He was a very special person, and I was very lucky to have someone so compassionate and caring come across my path,” Joe said.
The naming honor showcases St. Louis Park’s commitment to putting its children first, said Scott Foltz, who served as co-captain of the high school varsity baseball team during their mutual senior year.
“I urge you to pass this measure not only for Derrick but also to establish that St. Louis Park is a community that takes great pride, respects and admires its children,” Foltz said. “I also wish to use Derrick to set an example for future generations of St. Louis Park baseball players as that is how he would have wished it.”
Foltz said he still thinks of Derrick when stepping out on a baseball diamond.
“I remember what he stood for, what he meant and how lucky we were to play for St. Louis Park,” Foltz said.
Jacobs, in a quavering voice, summed up, “What an extraordinary guy, an extraordinary person. You younger guys out there, pay this forward, listen to these stories and be the kind of person that Derrick was, because my guess is he would have wanted that When you become a senior, find the eighth grader who can’t hit well and help him out on a Friday night. That’s how you honor him.”
Contact Seth Rowe at firstname.lastname@example.org.