It wasn’t exactly a road trip. Wasn’t exactly a typical mission trip either. It also wasn’t just one trip. But a little over 15 years ago, Bill Keeler was subtly introduced to what is now his favorite pastime over the course of 17 trips to help rebuild in the Mississippi Delta after Hurricane Katrina. He was riding along with his good friend, the late Dr. Bob Collier, an ardent birder.
“It was over the course of those trips that I really got to know him, and saw his passion for birds,” Keeler said. “We’d be driving along, he’d see some bird off the road, and he had to pull off so he could look at it.”
While Keeler chuckles at the memory, he said those trips sparked his own pursuit of birding. He really threw himself into it about five years ago. So much so that he is now the vice president of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society.
“Don’t say that big word, it scares people,” he said, laughing. He prefers to call it the bird club or group. He is also a member of Friends of Seven Islands State Birding Park and regularly leads bird hikes there. His favorite hobby has led him to learn about native plants, gardening for wildlife and habitat preservation. And he can’t stop singing praises for Seven Islands.
“I think before the pandemic, it was still a bit of a little-known entity,” Keeler said. “But then people were looking for a way to get outside and do so safely, without having to go all the way to the Smokies or wherever. There’s a trail that anyone can use. The park isn’t just used by birders. Families bring their children, people come to walk their dogs. Now hundreds of people are there, on weekends, especially.”
The next place that will hold a special place in Keeler’s heart is the Collier Preserve on 12 acres of land in Powell donated by Bob and Louise Collier. The official ribbon cutting is Friday, March 26, at 10 a.m. Keeler will be in attendance, but he and his fellow bird clubbers have some special plans in the works for the preserve.
“This is going to be a community project for us. We’re working with Overhill Gardens (in Vonore) and UT master gardeners along with Legacy Parks Foundation on some native plant installations,” he said. “Dr. Collier was a wonderful man and this is a way to honor him.”
Keeler, 77, grew up in Fountain City and graduated from Central High School in 1962. He still lives out Tazewell Pike with his second wife, Connie, and enjoys having their combined 5 children and 11 grand-children nearby.
Though retired from Knoxville Habitat, many are familiar with his work as executive director of the Fountain City Ministry Center, which operates a food pantry and clothing closet for children. Though he stepped down from that position about three years ago, he still sits on the board. Its mission is still dear to his heart, which he said “amazingly held its own” throughout the Covid pandemic.
“People really stepped up,” Keeler said. “If there is anything I have learned about Fountain City, it’s that the people here are really generous. It makes me very proud to live here.”
Beth Kinnane is community editor for KnoxTNToday.com