Joel T. Keys ’69

Rev. Joel T. Keys died surrounded by family on June 22, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joel was born June 27, 1947 in Seneca, South Carolina to Theodore Crawford Keys and Margery Soenksen Keys. His father’s Air Force career took the Keys family to Roswell, N.M., Omaha, NE, Tampa, FL, Witney, Oxfordshire, U.K., Bunker Hill, IN, and McGuire A.F.B., N.J, and Walhalla, S.C..

Keys attended Davidson College in Davidson, N.C. where he played in a bluegrass band that drove around the mountains of western North Carolina in a hearse with a slogan painted on the outside that read “in this hearse bluegrass music comes alive!” Joel graduated from Davidson in 1969 and remained in contact with many of his classmates there until his final days.

After Davidson and before attending seminary, Joel married Mary Beth Taylor Keys on October 3rd, 1969. The two moved to Ridgeland, SC where Joel taught Social Studies and was named Teacher of the Year. Joel graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 1973. Later he did a wide variety of post-graduate studies and research at the College of Preachers at the Washington Cathedral, Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C., and the University of the South, Sewanee, TN.

After he was ordained in the Episcopal Church, Keys served as Vicar of Christ Church, Denmark, Associate Rector of Christ Church, Charlotte, N.C., Rector of Trinity Church, Statesville, N.C., then of St. John’s Church, Lynchburg, VA., and finally as Rector of St. George’s Church, Nashville, TN. After retirement he became Interim Rector of St. Thomas Church, Diamondhead, MS, and served at St. Ignatius at St. Simons Island, GA. In these parishes Joel led services, cared for community members, and never preached a sermon longer than 8 minutes.

During his parish ministry he served as a Trustee of the Virginia Theological Seminary, Westminster-Canterbury of Lynchburg (VA), and Episcopal Child Care Services (The Thompson Home, Charlotte, NC). He was one of the Founders of the Shepherd’s Center of Charlotte as well as Hospice of Iredell County. One of his gifts was his ability to work with people of other disciplines – physicians and nurses, business leaders.

Keys was deeply involved in the life of the Episcopal Church in each diocese in which he served, including serving as President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and Chairman of the Commission on Ministry in the Diocese of North Carolina as well as serving that Diocese as its Deployment Officer.

He believed that he was absolutely blessed, having served with some of the most talented people, both lay and ordained, in the Episcopal Church. Two of his former assistants became bishops, as did two of his previous fellow staff members.

Joel loved to fly fish from an early age and had a propensity for taking others out into mountain streams to teach them to fish, sometimes even changing the course of their lives in the process. Joel and Mary Beth initially scoffed at golf and golfing culture but after trying the sport, became fond of the pastime, and eventually settled at St Simons Island with a view of the 16th Green of King & Prince course.

Joel had a preternatural ability to connect with people from diverse backgrounds. Ever the trickster, when his daughters were at camp Joel was known to send care packages full of plastic snakes and fake ants so they could prank their cabinmates. In 1983 he published a book called Our Older Friends, a guide to companioning the elderly and infirm. His sense of humor and creativity were defining characteristics and his true gift to any church or community in which he served was his ability to help people understand the positive effects of charitable giving.

Reverend Keys is survived by Mary Elizabeth Taylor, his wife of 54 years, daughters Caroline Elizabeth Keys of Missoula, MT, and Leah Thompson Keys (Jamie Harmon) and their children, Gus (Angel), Everett, and Hopper of Memphis, TN. He was the son of Theodore Crawford Keys (Lt. Col. USAF, retired) and Margery Ellen Soenksen (1st Lt., WAC), both of whom served in the European Theater in WWII. In addition, he is survived by three sisters, Kathryn Keys Whitmire (Charles) of Greenville, S.C., Janet Leslie Keys of Vestavia Hills, AL, and Charlotte Jayne Keys of Arlington, MA, and one brother, Dr. Marshall T. Keys (Sandy) of Nantucket, MA, Brookline, MA, and Richmond, VA.