Giving spirit aids communities

A former co-worker and then employee of Hollidaysburg engineer Joe Keller has referred to him as having a “quiet and unassuming” way.

“He’s unique … one of a kind,” said Sandy Ivory of Ashville, who first knew Keller when he was working for another Hollidaysburg-area engineering firm, P. Joseph Lehman Inc. She was then a reporter covering a major wastewater treatment project in Cambria County, and he was an inspector and project manager.

Ivory later joined Lehman’s marketing department, but when Keller, a civil engineer, decided to open his own company 22 years ago in downtown Hollidaysburg, Ivory went to work for him.

What she learned over the years is that Keller’s mission was not only to help design and make good bridges, highways, buildings and business parks, but, she said, “His biggest thing was he needed to give back to the community, not only here, but everywhere we worked.”

This meant that Keller would become involved in other communities where his company had projects, sponsoring Little League teams and always giving to the firemen’s association of that town.

And, she said, Keller not only contributed to various events and projects, he was a guy who went out and worked in the community as a volunteer. She remembered how he cooked at the St. Patrick Catholic Church fish fries in Newry, where his wife, Joan, was a teacher and administrator of the elementary school.

She said one of her jobs was to subscribe to the newspapers of the towns where Keller Engineers was involved, find out what was important to that community and then find ways to lend support to the community.

“I don’t think anybody realizes this,” Ivory said this past week.

While most of Keller’s community activities might be under the radar so to speak, he is receiving attention this week for his work to build a new community library in Hollidaysburg, a project that has taken years to gel.

That hard work will come to fruition at 2 p.m. Thursday when a groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for the site of the new 11,200-square-foot library adjacent to the Hollidaysburg Area Senior High School.

Keller and his wife have not only contributed to the library, but he has served as the president of the library’s board of trustees during the lengthy search for a site and the resolution of the tedious problems that come with any building project.

Janet Eldred, the director of the library now at Clark and Allegheny streets, said that Keller “has been wonderful in being there to answer questions.”

She said his knowledge about construction and the rules and regulations that come with such a large effort have been invaluable.

Eldred said, “I’ve always been confident we’d get there.”

But the path has been a long one. She said she was hired nine years ago with the mission of constructing a new library, and Keller has been the president of the board for most of those years.

She described Keller as “kind, very personable, patient,” and she said, “I’ve had unending questions for him.”

A former Hollidaysburg library worker, Lucy Wolf, now law librarian for the Blair County Courthouse, is on the board of trustees, and she called Keller a “very good president of the board.

“He is respected in the community. … He is very knowledgeable of construction and zoning,” said Wolf.

Many people have contributed to the effort, but she said Keller’s “all-around knowledge has been very beneficial to the project.”

Then she added, “He’s a nice guy.”

Keller believes that the Hollidaysburg library is a “good community asset.”

The appreciation of a library runs in the family. His wife is a reading specialist, and his son, Keller said, “was always a big reader.”

He said a new building was needed because the current 7,000-square-foot building was not large enough.

The new structure will have room for more computers. That is valuable in this economy to help people with job searches, he said.

There will be more room for the kids, and the new library will have a community room that can be rented by the public for events.

He said finding a site was a challenge. The board looked at the now-vacant Highland Hall, a huge and very historic building, but the rooms were too small.

Keller said the board looked at 10 to 15 sites, including a former downtown furniture store, a site near the Blair County genealogy building on the east side of the borough and at Legion Park.

He complimented the staff at the library, noting, “I appreciate what they do.”

As the project began to take form, it had to be redesigned, Keller said. A new two-story structure became too expensive. The new library will all be on one floor.

The beginning

Keller grew up in Altoona at Grant Avenue and 13th Street where his parents, George and Gertrude, still live.

He maintains his roots, still attending nearby St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

He’s a graduate of Bishop Guilfoyle High School and went to Penn State Altoona for two years, then completed his engineering degree on Penn State’s main campus.

Keller was asked why he became an engineer, and in his matter-of-fact way, he said, “I was always decent in math. My mom said, ‘How about engineering?'”

He said, with a shrug, “no great epiphany” led to his decision.

But he clearly loves his work, and he said with pride that his son is following in his footsteps, studying civil engineering at George Mason University.

For 16 years he worked at the Lehman company before going on his own. He credited Joe Lehman with “giving me the opportunity to learn a lot of things.”

Ivory pointed out that when Keller decided to open his own company, there were many other large and well-established companies in the area, but she said from the beginning Keller made it part of his business to be involved in the community and do volunteer work.

Keller explained his mission to be part of the communities where he works as not unique but only following examples he admired from other community-active firms.

He said community involvement is part of companies such as Ward Trucking, the Sheetz Corp. and The Hite Co.

“A lot of companies put a lot back into the community. Part of our mission and vision is we get work from the community. … I think it [giving back] is the thing to do. It’s win-win for everybody,” Keller said.

What Keller has done is build a business that has become a staple in downtown Hollidaysburg.

He first rented a room from developer P. Jules Patt at 420 Allegheny St., across from the courthouse. Then it was two rooms, then three and finally in the mid-1990s, he bought the building.

Keller, who has more than 50 employees, does engineering work on many municipal projects within a 60 to 80 mile radius, and, he said, one of his largest clients is PennDOT.

His business has been expanding throughout Pennsylvania and into surrounding states, and he said, he has even been involved in the design of some border-crossing buildings in Texas.

As Keller’s business grows so does his community work. He has been involved with the American Cancer Society, the Boy Scouts, the Industrial Advisory Board at Penn State Altoona – his company also contributing to the Campus Rail Transportation Engineering Program – the ABCD Corp. and Improved Dwellings for Altoona, and he served with the Easter Seals Society.

Jamie Baser, Hollidaysburg Main Street manager, said Keller does a lot of work for her organization and its events.

“He’s at every meeting. … He’s been so involved, and sometimes he brings his son,” she said.

He helps put lights on the Christmas tree displayed in the borough, and his company provided a stage for downtown concerts.

She said Keller Engineers is a “great business to have in the downtown.”

Keller has worked with the Hollidaysburg Community Partnership since 1993, and Baser said he’s a good person to have in the organization because he knows what has been tried and what works when it comes to marketing the borough. She said Main Street managers have changed over the years, but his leadership has provided needed stability.

“It’s amazing to me,” said Baser, “when I go out to other events in the community, he’s there.”

The Keller firm has recently been honored as one of the best places to work in the state and in May received a Governor’s Impact Award for the Southern Alleghenies Region.