Phil Keeter sits in the front row. From his economic classes at The University of Tulsa to his pew at Boston Avenue Methodist Church, Keeter is front and center. Keeter (BA ’59) has maintained his front-and-center attention on the success of TU. From serving as president of the Golden Hurricane Club to his heavy involvement in the TU Alumni Association, “I always wanted TU to be as successful as OU and OSU,” he said. “I had it in the back of my mind that my participation might help to get us there.”
As a TU flag waves from his front porch, Keeter’s neighbors have no question where he and his wife, Marilyn (BA ’58), went to college; and upstairs, there is an entire room decked floor to ceiling in TU memorabilia. From his first-row classroom seat, Keeter noticed Marilyn, and his professor had a suggestion to his future wife; “Miss Carter, you’re going to have to move up here to the front row, or Mr. Keeter is going to have to move back there with you because I can’t teach with him looking back all the time.”
TU helped prepare Keeter for his successful career in the retail boating industry, and he learned time management by balancing a TU class load with a job. “I learned a lot of maturity lessons,” he said. “If I didn’t do my studying in between my noon class and work, I would get behind.”
After graduation, Keeter joined his father-in-law in running Romer Marine, a retail boating company. “I knew nothing about boats,” he admitted. Soon his boat knowledge caught up to his gregarious personality, and Keeter made an excellent boat salesman. “You cannot rationalize owning a boat,” he said. “You sell the carefree nature of it and raising your family on a good wholesome lifestyle outside of the house.”
In 1960, Keeter along with six area marine retailers established the Tulsa Boat Sport and Travel Show in order to bring recreational boating to the forefront in Oklahoma. The TBSTS has grown to be one of the largest boat shows in the United States, ranking in the top five in square footage of exhibit space and in the top ten in total attendance. Keeter remains president of the show today.
In 1972, Keeter helped establish the Marine Retailers Association of America. “We decided the retail part of the boating industry was not getting represented in Congress.” What started as 12 members flourished into 3,000 members in three years, and when Keeter retired in 2012, the association included nearly 6,000 members.
In 1986, Keeter closed Romer Marine and became the president of the association. He often walked the halls of Congress explaining to representatives that, “The boating industry is always pictured as people who are affluent, but 80 percent of boats are owned by middle-class people.” Keeter worked toward lowering fees and regulations, but his crowning business achievement was defeating the federal luxury tax in early 2000, which in one year cost the recreational boating industry 40 percent of its business nationwide. “I felt like we really accomplished something for the people and the boating industry,” he said.
President George H. W. Bush appointed Keeter to the Boating Safety Advisory Council, and he served for two consecutive three-year terms. The council proposed policy and legislation to the U.S. Coast Guard which lobbied Congress to make it law. The council also allowed the Keeters to travel; “We met all over the country,” he said.
Although Keeter’s association job kept him in Chicago Monday through Thursday, he and Marilyn would return to Tulsa every weekend. “It never entered my mind to leave Tulsa,” he said. His heart was always with his family and his TU family in Tulsa, but Keeter had another significant family: his church community. “I’m 80 years old, and I have been a member of Boston Avenue Methodist Church since birth,” he said. His grandmother, mother, children and grandchildren have all sat in the front row. Keeter has served as a chairman of the board and considers former Pastor Mouzon Biggs his life compass.
Keeter was influential in initiating the Barton-Clinton-Gordey Series at Boston Avenue, which brought in speakers for a four-day lecture series. From theologians to rabbis, the lectures focus on new and varied perceptions of the Christian story. “It’s interesting in the Methodist church to hear a rabbi preach for four days,” Keeter said.
His commitment to TU was the other reason to be Tulsa bound. He has been a season ticket holder for TU basketball and football for at least 50 years. “When I was president of the Golden Hurricane Club, it didn’t have the membership that it has today, and we were trying to get it up to steam,” he said. “Any success you had was meaningful.” He traveled with the coaches and developed lifelong friendships in the TU Athletic Department.
When he is not cheering at a TU sporting event or in the office, Keeter and his family are at the lake. He and Marilyn like being with their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren and teaching them about nature and — no surprise — proper boat maintenance. “Every evening at the lake, we always have a big family dinner,” he said.
Those same loving faces will be seated in the front row when Keeter receives the TU Distinguished Alumni Award. He considers the award an incredible and surprising honor. “I’ve never dreamed in my life that I would be a TU Distinguished Alumnus,” he said, but his family found it perfectly suited for him. After all, he is a “front row kind of person.”