Having a conversation with Keith Alexander is like taking a big deep breath of fresh air. Substantial air to be sure, but fresh nonetheless. His interests, his loves and his life are rich beyond measure and he knows it. Keith is a hometown boy. He wasn't born in Shepherdstown, nor did he grow up in here, but making Shepherdstown his home just seemed to be his destiny.
Ida Mae Flemming graduated from Shepherd College with a degree in English Literature. The year was 1877. No member of Ida's family, or her daughter Elsie's, or Elsie's daughter, Christiana or her son Dwayne's family ever lived in Shepherdstown. No, the Gerstell's, Showaker's and Alexander's lived in other towns. It was seventeen year old Ida Mae who first came to Shepherdstown and more than one hundred and thirty years later her diploma hangs prominently in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies office of her great, great grandson, Keith Alexander.
Young Keith grew up on a working farm in Ellicott City, Maryland. Most weekends though his parents packed up their kids, Keith and Kristin, and headed west through Shepherdstown to another farm in Kyser, West Virginia. Mom, Dr. Marianne, was a professor of Public Policy at Gaucher College. She later founded the Public Leadership Education Network in Washington, DC. Dad, Dr. Duane, a pediatrician at NIH. Little sister Kristin, and Kristin Alexander, executive director of the Potomac Valley Audubon Society at the Yankauer Nature Preserve are one in the same.
Photo by Michael Theis/Chronicle
From day one Duane and Marianne taught their children to respect and appreciate Mother Nature. "I experienced Kyser in it's heyday." Keith recalled "It was a great little town. There was a real 5 & 10 and a neat old grocery store. There was a fabric store and a men's and women's clothing store. It was all in town and everybody shopped there. Then the Country Club Mall came in twenty minutes away in Cumberland. We saw business after business close and move out.
"Keyser was a victim of the "donut hole effect" - when the inner core of a town dissolves because business on the outside of town takes over." Keith Alexander is a man in his thirties and this "progress" began happening to a town full of his childhood when he was pretty young, but not too young to have the systematic dismantling of Kyser teach a life lesson of what can happen when "the people fail to embrace the economic potential of history, historic charm and preservation." "Shepherdstown has been really good about not failing. It started with the rescue of the Entler. It took concerned people coming together to ramp up awareness of what was about to happen."
Soon the lad grew up and in true Alexander form, went off to the Penn State.
He graduated with honors and distinction in 1992 with a BA in General Arts and Sciences and a BA in Music. He went on to the University of Maryland for a Masters in German History. Next it was graduate study at the Free University of Berlin and Humboldt University of Berlin in '96 and '97 and finally, back to Maryland for a Ph.D. in History. Can you say multi-faceted? While Keith was studying for his Ph.D. he got a job working at the National Archives in the Washington, DC area where he analyzed and translated German documents regarding the Nazi-era seizure of Jewish assets. He was also a teaching assistant at Maryland where he led discussions on Medieval History and Modern European History from 1789-1997. Then there was his work as a Fellow and Policy Analyst at Friends of the Earth in DC. There he researched issues of sustainable development in Africa and Latin America, wrote environmental policy analysis papers and grant proposals.
Though Keith's interests, studies and work have always taken him traveling, instilled in his heart was the desire to stay geographically close to family. Both Keith and Kristin praise their parents for the "roots and wings" philosophy by which they were raised. They coupled this with an appreciation for history and a protective love of the environment. But in 1993 Marianne and Duane really topped themselves when they gave something for which their son will be eternally grateful. They gave room and board to two Swedish exchange students from the University of Gothenberg. "I found out Mom and Dad had a couple of Swedish girls staying with them and I thought it would be a good idea to go home for a visit." It turned out it was a great idea. The tall and very beautiful, Eva Olsson was one of the students.
For the next eight years Keith and Eva studied, traveled, got to know each other, fell in love and managed a long distance relationship by avoiding long distance. Keith worked in Germany as an independent research contractor while Eva finished school. Eva went to the University of Maryland while Keith was a teaching assistant working on a Ph.D. They made it work. When you're in love it's almost easy.
In 2002 Keith Alexander and Eva Olsson were married and moved to Martinsburg. Keith was daily commuter to DC and the German Historical Institute. "There are German Historical Institutes all over the world. I worked at the one in Washington, DC near DuPont Circle. I did the train thing from 2003-2005. Then I tele-commuted and focused on editing rather than project coordination." At that time Keith also became an Adjunct Professor of History at both Shepherd University and Mountain State.
In 2006 Keith became an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Coordinator of the Historic Preservation Program at Shepherd where he teaches seven classes in variations of German, Environmental Policy, and Historic Preservation to a total of eighty students. In addition to teaching he is the Director of Archives a the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies overseeing the management processing and maintenance of the Robert C. Byrd archives and library. His presentations on preservation, solar applications, historic structures, German history and environmentalism have been popular fare in the Nation's Capitol and throughout the region. His list of published titles, honors, fellowships and awards run a page, and he's fluent in four languages.
In 2007, Eva and Keith found a circa. 1850 house on New Street in Shepherdstown. The house had been owned by Ray and Gloria Eshelman and was in really good shape, "turn-key." It was the Alexander's dream house, and all they had to do was unpack and put some personal touches in place. This readiness was critical because they didn't have time for renovations. Eva was pregnant with their first child, due very late in August. A move-in date of August second sounded like a good plan, and it would have been if Prince Felix hadn't arrived a week to the day after the closing. Keith laughs at the telling of this. (Remind me to discuss with Eva.)
Keith Alexander is a presence in town, he's a board member of Washington's Way West Heritage Committee, a board member of the American Conservation Film Festival, Chairman of the Shepherdstown Environmental Sustainability Committee and a board member and secretary of the Friends of the Shepherdstown Riverfront, and gives presentations for the Jefferson County Historical Society. Outside organizations include European Society for Environment history, Preservation Maryland and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He says the conservation bug comes from growing on a farm and from many, many family vacations to national parks, national forests, and from summer camp. (He also says we can knock 25% off our average monthly utility bills simply by using power strips for all those standby mode (remote control) electronic devices in our homes.)
Now at 2 Felix Alexander is also a well-known man about town. To the staff at Mellow Moods, the people at Stone Soup, and the teachers at the day care center and the library, his fellow environmentalists at the NCTC Tree Househe's a treat. And as his Mom is with the Goose Route Arts Collaborative, Felix decided to add to his talents and inserted himself into Eva's dance at a festival performance last summer. Most weekends find the family on road trips back to the farm in Kyser, as the valuable family history continues to shape the life and love of a whole new generation.
Keith Alexander is an expert in history, conservation, the environment. You could say - he's grounded in the past, present and future and really knows his subjects. But for all his brilliance and ability, the best part of Keith Alexander is his family. His demeanor unabashedly changes in two words: "FelixEva." Quite frankly he lights up. "I never knew you could love anything so much," he said, summing up the best part of his life.