Tom Keith – A Remembrance
Written by Tom Wilmeth
1 November 2011
I am weary of writing obituaries in 2011, and I don’t want to write this one. But I need to.
Tom Keith had a career at Minnesota Public Radio that spanned 4 decades. My own association with him lasted a mere 3 ½ years, from July 1980 to early 1984 -- my era at the station working as a Board Operator. And while I have not been in the same room with Tommy for a very long time, I remember him as well as if I had been drinking coffee with him last week. Maybe it’s because I could always hear his voice and check-up on him most Saturdays on A Prairie Home Companion. Which I did.
In recent years, I always knew the show was on tour when Garrison would fail to announce the name Tom Keith as the Sound Effects man at the end of a show. He once told me that his wife worried about him during the road trips. But it seemed to me that Tommy himself grew weary of the star trappings, and especially the touring, shortly after the PHC went national and became so widely embraced in the early 1980s.
I was at Minnesota Public Radio during a curious and perhaps pivotal time. I recall being in The World Theatre for the Saturday radio broadcasts when there seemed to be more performers on the stage than people in the audience. But soon, tickets would become so scarce that my regular balcony seat was needed for paying customers. So I was invited to work backstage instead, on the show itself.
Others have said it this week, but I want to echo that fact that Tom Keith brought a sense of calm to any situation, yet he was always the exacting professional. It was a balancing act that he made look easy. Tommy found humor in unpleasant situations, repeatedly diffusing workplace tension. At the same time, if some task was being shirked, he would be the person to let you know. I remember leaving some masking tape markings on a mixing console to remind me of audio levels. Tommy called me back to the control room and calmly made it clear that I needed to clean-up after myself. Never happened again – not from any fear, but from my respect for him.
It was a joy just to have a conversation with Tom Keith. Much has been made of Tommy’s sense of timing during the radio performances, but he was this way naturally. He regularly floored me not only with his fast rejoinders, but with a perfectly timed delivery that echoed an earlier era of comedians – Jack Benny, Bob & Ray, Johnny Carson. I think this combination of talent, attitude, and personality is why he could stay on Keillor’s A-List for such a long time. It seemed to me that Garrison could throw Tom into any situation and he could quickly adapt and make it work. And do so without ego or attitude – no small thing in any performance setting.
Tom always made me feel welcome and at ease, whether in the MPR studios or on one of my few road trips with the PHC. It was on such an outing to do a live broadcast in upstate Minnesota where I saw the respect that Tommy commanded on so many levels. He filled a unique position on the show as a performer, of course, but never acted the part of the Talent on this trip. He was chief roadie, technician, and van driver. And after this he would be ready to assist the actual show in all possible ways – sound effects, characters, anything that would help the broadcast -- on the air or at the mixing board.
I had known for some time that Tom was a really good guy, but it was on this trip that I could also see first-hand what a well rounded and tour-tested radio professional he was.
“Just stay out of his way when he is packing the van,” I was told. “Don’t try to help.”
“Why?” I asked. “He’s never seemed temperamental before.”
“It’s not that. The guy can pack 50 pounds of sh*t into a 40 pound bag.
Just watch and learn.”
I did watch, for over 3 years, but I could probably have learned a lot more from Tom Keith during my time with him. Tommy will be missed by the Minneapolis/St. Paul radio community and by all those who enjoyed his talent on the radio. I count myself lucky that I spent time with the man.