Keller, Willis





In honor of the Valley Stream Fire Department's 125th Anniversary, the historical society has released a 1987 oral history recording narrated by Willis "Duke" Sylvanus Keller,a long-standing and respected member of the department. 
The following short bio serves only as a snapshot of Keller's life—a brief introduction to the recording you are about to hear.  
By Amy Kassak Bentley
August 17, 2023

The Keller surname is well known in the village—most recollections pertaining to Duke’s younger brother, Henry Bertram “Bert” Keller (1915-2004)—the much-loved Central High School teacher, assistant principal, civic leader, impresario, and all-around good guy. But, for the firehouse community, Duke was their man.

President Clinton

A lifelong resident of Valley Stream, Keller joined the fire department in 1925. He rose through the ranks, becoming lieutenant and captain of Engine Company One. In 1939, he became chief of the department. In 1995, the fire department honored Duke for his 70 years of service with a testimonial dinner at Leonard's of Great Neck. Bill Clinton sent a congratulatory note to Willis' North Corona Avenue home, which was built by his paternal grandfather in 1905. 

Gifted athlete

In his teen years, before his lifelong affiliation with the fire department, Duke’s athletic gifts emerged. He played both baseball and football for the Sago Athletic Club, an amateur Valley Stream sports organization, founded in 1909. (His father William also played baseball for Sago when Willis was a young child.) When Firemen's Field opened in the mid-twenties, the fire department formed semi-pro teams—the athletics were paid. In 1928, the Fire Department Vamps displaced the Sago A.C. baseball and football teams, and the old club folded. 

In 1940, under Keller's reign as fire chief, Firemen's Field was sold to the Village of Valley Stream for $8,500. Running a profitable ball field proved too much of a financial strain for the fire department. A formal dedication ceremony, attended by over 500 people, took place that year, presided over by Chief Keller. 

Firemen's Field was built on land once owned by the Langdons—the maternal side of the Keller family. In 1922, the estate of Ezekiel Langdon sold the family's farmland to the fire department for $6,300. After the sale, and the dissolution of the Sago A.C., Keller played baseball and football for the Vamps, the Hawtree Indians (South Ozone Park), the East Rockaway Rocks, Pratt Institute, and the Rockville Centre Fire Department. 

New York Giants

In 1928, while playing for the Rocks, a scout from the New York Nationals recommended Duke to the New York Giants. The 21-year-old “star" shortstop tried out for the national club, but didn’t make the team. Undeterred, Keller continued playing baseball, basketball, and bowling for various Nassau and Queens communities. In 1930, he won the Queens Borough bowling championship!  

Education, career, and personal life 

In June 1925, Willis graduated South Side High School in Rockville Centre, as there was no high school in Valley Stream. (In 1925, Valley Stream High School was established in the old wooden Wheeler Avenue Elementary School. In 1929, Valley Stream Central High School opened on Fletcher Avenue.) South Side had a strong athletic department and Willis was captain of their varsity baseball and basketball teams. He attended Brown University as a pre-med student, but quickly realized he was squeamish and unable to dissect a frog. He transferred to Pratt Institute, where in 1929, he received a certificate from their School of Science and Technology.

In his early career years, he worked as a railroad engineer and as a fuel salesman for Moses R. Cornwell, who operated a coal, oil, wood, and brick yard on Hawthorne Avenue. In 1939, Duke founded Keller Plumbing & Heating, a business that's still in existence. Willis was a long-standing member of Valley Stream Masonic Lodge 1143. He married Catherine Clark, and together they had two sons—Bruce and Robert, three grandchildren, and five greats. 

Oral history extraordinaire

Duke’s 1987 oral history recording with Helen Dowdeswell, a retired teacher and the society's indefatigable interviewer, is a rare treat, indeed. Of all the 160+ tapes in the collection, Duke Keller’s comes out on top—it’s one of the best. Willis enlightens and entertains his audience with the history of his forefathers, Firemen's Field, the Red Riders football team, home-life, schooling, village celebrations, buildings and businesses, and, of course, the fire department.

The older the bread, the better it tasted

His observations and memories of life are simple. They are original. His mother, Lucy Langdon Keller, baked bread but once a week. "The older the bread, the better it tasted." His warm and engaging voice draws the listener into a world that no longer exists. It's a bittersweet journey back in time—a Master Class for those that yearn for first-hand, first-rate historical data on the Village of Valley Stream.  

Duke—you hit a home run with this recording. You're a giant in our eyes.  

Lori Keller Reisman and Kathleen Keller contributed to this piece.  


newspaper abbreviations: 
BDE - Brooklyn Daily Eagle; NDR - Nassau Daily Review (Freeport); NDR-S - Nassau Daily Review-Star (Freeport)  

1922-09.08 (VS Record)

1925-01.15 (LI News and Owl)

1927-08.03 (NDR)

1928-07.30 (NDR)

1928-08.26 (NDR)

1929-06.20 (BDE)

1940-06.17 (NDR-S)

1969-10.02 (MAILeader)

1987-09.18 (Outline)

1995-05.04 (VS Herald)

1997-04.21 (Newsday)

2022-11, FF Early Years (A. Bentley)

2022-11, PDF team worksheets (A. Bentley) 

Below, the 12 oral history tracks: