Albert Keiser ’66

Albert Keiser Jr.: Hero, legend, quite a character

I never met Albert Keiser Jr., a Hickory native who died April 26, 2022, at Conover Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, but I know enough about him now to say I surely would have liked to interview him. I would find out what motivated his zeal for the arts and sciences, genealogy, economics and finance, education, and so forth. I would also ask why he generously shared his wealth and expertise with so many organizations and individuals.

I’d have asked him what his childhood had been like. We’d likely have exchanged reflections on being only children. We’d have talked about our parents and grandparents. Thanks to Albert’s friend, folk artist and author Barry Huffman of Hickory, who wrote a short biography of Albert in 2016, I know Albert’s father, Albert Keiser Sr., was a German immigrant who completed theological studies at Wartburg Lutheran Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and attained a doctorate in English literature from the University of Illinois. After professorships in South Dakota and South Carolina, Albert Sr. moved to Hickory in 1925 and taught at Lenoir-Rhyne College until 1957. In 1959, he died a wealthy man from stock market and real estate investments.

Albert’s mother, South Carolina native Lena Virginia McGukin Keiser, attended Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina, and then received a master’s degree from Duke University. She taught English and French in South Carolina schools and at Wingate University. Lena met Albert Sr. through nieces of Hickory businessman George Ivey. They married in 1942 and had Albert Jr. on July 3, 1944.

Knowing that Albert was a family history buff and a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, I’d tell him I, too, was keen on learning my ancestors’ stories. We’d have swapped secrets buried generations deep. Then, he’d have detailed his lineage to the American Revolution, and I’d have testified to my own descent from our nation’s founding women and men.

We’d have reminisced about the births of Hickory’s art museum and science center and about how downtown Hickory used to look. We’d have extoled the glory of Catawba County’s oldest homes and structures and eulogized by-gone eateries, stores, and familiar faces.

The topic of education would have come up. Albert would have told me he was valedictorian of Hickory High School’s class of 1962 and that he graduated fifth in a class of 230 from Davidson College in 1966, his major being history. He’d have mentioned a one-year stint studying law at Harvard before returning to Hickory and setting his sights on the business world.

Following his death, a cry went up that Albert needed to be known and remembered. I turned to the people who knew him, including his closest friend, Hickory resident Lynn Blackwelder, who said, “I hope he realized how many people loved him. I’ve had messages from people around the country.”

Lynn and Albert became friends a few years after they graduated from Hickory High. “I’ve been looking after him ever since,” said Lynn, who described Albert the philanthropist, financial advisor, stockbroker, genealogist, real estate professional, and one of Catawba County’s biggest fans. “He’d lead groups on tours of Hickory, where he’d point out historic structures and places and explain their significance,” said Lynn. “He was absolutely one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Lynn emphasized that Albert never bragged about his philanthropic efforts and had a sense of humor. “He told me about an ancestor woman from the 1700s. He said she had a beard and was fat,” Lynn stated, laughing. “He couldn’t have known that. He just made it up. He liked to shock his good friends with his joking.”

Like Lynn, Barry offered a list of Albert’s contributions, pointing out, “There’s a Keiser [Community] Room in the [United] Arts Council [of Catawba County] building due to his generosity,” a fact also highlighted by arts council Executive Director Ingrid Keller, who called Albert a significant contributor to the area’s arts and culture community and a person whose impact on the community will live well into the future.

Barry and her husband, retired physician Allen Huffman, are Southern folk art collectors. From their personal collection, they partly donated, partly sold 153 pieces to the Hickory Museum of Art, “the first folk art pieces at the Hickory Museum of Art to any extent,” said Barry. Albert, who was much involved in the museum and possibly hadn’t been introduced to folk art prior to that time, loved them.

When Albert discovered that Barry and Allen took regular trips to Buford, Georgia, for the Slotin Auction, a private auction company that specializes in American folk art, he asked if he could accompany them, and a tradition brewed: Huffman-Keiser folk art buying trips.

Explaining Albert’s fondness for folk art, Barry stated in his bio, “He feels a connection with the artists who have stood outside the mainstream and created amazing art that reflects the strength and wonder of everyday living.” From 2012 to 2018, the trio traveled to Buford seven times, with Albert amassing a collection to donate to HMA.

Museum director Jon Carfagno said, “Visitors to our galleries now have the opportunity to experience the creativity, ingenuity, and creative expression of leading artists such as Purvis Young, Lorenzo Scott, Clementine Hunter, and many more. We are grateful for how [Albert’s] gifts have elevated our collection to rival the holdings of the best museums and collections in our nation.”

Barry considered Albert a hero. In a written statement of Albert Keiser recollections, Hickory Landmarks Society director Patrick Daily called him “a legend.”

After listing examples of Albert’s support of the society, Patrick stated, “There is not one single person, by far, who has been there for us for so long during our organization’s 54-year history.”

In a 2016 recording of Patrick interviewing Albert, I heard Albert’s voice, his utterly Southern accent. He talked about going to Davidson, where excelling in the classroom was a much bigger challenge than high school had been. He admitted to brown-nosing the professors, which, coupled with quadrupling his study time, proved beneficial. A difficult emotional time plagued Albert for a while, his mental health sliding. Even at this low point during his young adult years, Albert supported the Hickory Landmarks Society, having already developed an appreciation for many of Hickory’s significant structures.

Albert said that in the 1970s he’d sit in the Lenoir-Rhyne library and read the Wall Street Journal from cover to cover before making stock purchases. He made a lot of money, and then “things changed around,” he reported, and he lost it all. Thinking he might declare bankruptcy and off himself, he talked to his financial mentor Claude Abernethy Jr., who suggested that neither was a good idea and tutored Albert in the importance of patience in the money-making game.

Albert became a financial advisor to a variety of people, many of whom he considered disreputable but financially successful, so much so that working with them helped him amass his own fortune.

He became interested in researching his family, including the black sheep therein, and he helped others look into their family backgrounds. Then he began unearthing the histories of old houses and drawing conclusions about whether a place should be preserved or forgotten. Hickory’s 1882 Propst House, restored by the Hickory Landmarks Society, was one Albert deemed important to save.

As the recording continued, Albert shared the good, the questionable, and the scandalous backstories of all sorts of prominent and lesser known Catawba County people, but the tattle-telling was not as surprising as the abundance of details Albert plucked from memory with remarkable ease.

Recording concluded, I thought to myself that Albert, who held nothing back when he was in a tell-all mood, could have had a successful career on TV: The Keiser Report: First the Facts. Then the Truth.

There’s more. So much more. Major contributor to the Catawba Science Center; North Carolina pottery aficionado; 2018 million-dollar benefactor of a digital art professorship at Davidson College; co-author with Angela May of 2004’s “From Tavern to Town Revisited: An Architectural History of Hickory, North Carolina” and so on.

My conclusion is that Albert Keiser found joy, fascination, and purpose in all sorts of places, things, ideas, organizations, and institutions, and he felt moved to do whatever he could to sustain their existence for this and future generations.

A hero and a legend and quite a character.

A celebration of life for Albert Keiser is being planned for a later date.

Reprinted from Hickory Daily Record