Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs "A Life Remembered." Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about Thomas D. Keckler, who died Aug. 18, 2011, at the age of 64. His obituary was published in the Aug. 20 edition of The Herald-Mail.
Thomas "Tom" Keckler's life was far from ordinary. Although he began his almost five-year career as a math teacher at Smithsburg Middle School, then at South Hagerstown High School, he felt a calling to another path.
"Teaching was too confining. He often said he wished he'd gone into the military," said Sue Ann Delauney, who was married to Tom for more than 30 years.
His next chapter began when he attended the Maryland State Police Academy, graduating in 1973, and worked as a road trooper, criminal investigator and crime lab technician, before retiring in 1993. Tom had been working part time for the Washington County Sheriff's Department since 2008.
Dan Seiler and Tom met while working for the state police and had known each other for about 30 years. A friendship grew outside of work and after they both retired, they started a business where they bought and rehabbed properties, then rented or sold them.
"We were close in a professional and personal sense. He was an amenable, kindhearted guy . . . a little bit rebellious at times to authority," said Dan Seiler, who added that Tom liked to play jokes on people and had a dry sense of humor.
Their most recent venture was winemaking. They started their first batch of white wine about a year ago, sampled it weeks before Tom's death, and were pleased with the results. Tom was going to help Dan install a fish pond in his yard, but they were waiting for cooler weather.
After Tom retired from the state police, he "dabbled" in accounting, but found the "9 to 5 world, suit and tie" didn't suit him.
"That just was not Tom," Sue Ann said.
The next chapter involved adventure and travel. Tom went on assignments with DynCorp, traveling to Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Iraq. He served in peacekeeping forces and was involved in training local law enforcement officers for the United Nations.
"He lived an adventurous life. He liked living on the edge," Sue Ann said.
"He always minimized the danger," said longtime friend Vaughn Crowl, recalling the time Tom's hotel in Baghdad was bombed. No one was hurt.
Tom's early years were spent in Hagerstown's West End, but his family moved to the Mt. Lena area.
Sue Ann, who grew up in Sharpsburg, said she met Tom in junior high, but didn't really like him then.
"Things changed in high school," she said.
They started dating when both were sophomores at age 15.
"I never dated anyone else after that. My heart was his," Sue Ann said.
Tom, a 1964 Boonsboro High School graduate, played football and baseball for the school. He pitched for the Warriors and was scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Senators, but pursued a college education instead.
He stayed close to four of his high school teammates — Steve Berry, Gary Clipp, Vaughn and George Messner — and for the past five or six years, they got together in August at Clipp's home in Bethany Beach, Del. for a "guys' weekend" of crabbing, fishing and catching up, Sue Ann said.
This year's trip had been delayed until after Labor Day. Vaughn said they plan to go ahead with the weekend in early September, because that's what Tom would have wanted.
"It won't be the same. We'll focus on being glad we had him," Vaughn said.
Vaughn said he and Tom met in a middle school math class and played baseball together. Later, they met weekly for racquetball at the "Y."
"He helped in every circumstance. He would do anything for you," said Vaughn, recounting the time Tom helped him put in a central vacuum system, insisting they finish the job even though it took until 2:30 a.m.
"Tom was such a good friend. Words are inadequate," he said.
Tom and Sue Ann went to Shepherd College and Tom graduated in 1968 with a degree in math and secondary education.
They married in March 1968 during a snowstorm, Sue Ann said. The couple did not have children, but over the course of their life together, had four German shepherds.
Sue Ann admits their relationship had its ups and downs and that most of their friends didn't understand them.
"Tom and I had a tumultuous relationship. Tom was the love of my life and at the same time he was often my greatest aggravation," Sue Ann said.
"We were together 49 years, but never lost touch in spite of the dark times," Sue Ann said.
"We were married 32 years — two fiercely independent souls," Sue Ann said.
The couple divorced in 2000. But that didn't keep them apart.
She said Tom was more outgoing than she was and that she was more of a loner, needing solitude.
His U.N. assignments took him all over the world, a perfect fit for his "free spirit."
The couple shared a love of travel. Past trips took them to destinations such as Paris, England, Luxembourg and the Southwest in the U.S.
Trips were already planned to the Florida Keys in November, then to Ireland in the spring to visit a peacekeeping friend of Tom's.
Sue Ann is retiring as medical technician at the Veterans Affairs Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., in October. Tom's retirement gift to her was to have been a trip together to New Zealand in November 2012.
She said Tom had a love-hate relationship with the Baltimore Orioles. Their last trip was from their "bucket list" — to see the Orioles play the Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston.
They stayed at a bed and breakfast near the ballpark, visited the aquarium, enjoyed a nice dinner and had a great time.
Some of Tom and Sue Ann's best times were working on projects together, she said. They spent five or six years restoring the Van Lear Manor home in Williamsport they had purchased in 1984. Over the years, they created a woodland garden complete with stone waterfall and fountain on the property.
"This all evolved in being together, being apart, being together, being apart," Sue Ann said.
"This is my refuge. Tom knew I needed peace and solitude."
After their divorce, Tom bought a house in Great Cacapon, W.Va., which they also worked on together, although his heart was never there, Sue Ann said.
"He was always doing things, always helping friends," she said.
They had recommitted to each other and were working on building a life together at the time of Tom's unexpected death, talking about selling their two homes and building a single-story home. Sue Ann has rheumatoid arthritis, which caused Tom concern.
"He was such a big help to me. He worried about me," Sue Ann said.
Tom remained active and had just had his six-month checkup with the doctor the week before his death, Sue Ann said.
He was riding his bicycle toward Paw Paw, W.Va., when he had a massive heart attack. Passers-by noticed his bicycle on the side of the road and stopped their car, only to discover Tom there as well. They called 911, but nothing could be done to resuscitate him.
"He was always rigorous. He kept himself fit. It just was such a shock to go in such a quick way," Vaughn said.
"It gave me peace that Tom lived life to the fullest. The worst thing would have been for him to have been bedridden," Sue Ann said.
"It was too young, but it's the way Tom would have wanted to die," she said.