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Memorial Service | John Doerner
Douglas Keller, June 1985
It’s always very difficult to report the sad news of a friend passing away. It’s especially hard today. Douglas Keller, “Little Big Man” as all his friends affectionately called him passed away at his home in Arkansas on Sunday, April 24, 2005 (one day after his 41st birthday).
Doug had spent the past 14 years as a park ranger, then park historian at Pea Ridge National Military Park, Garfield, Arkansas. Before that he was curator at Bent’s Fort. And, before all that, there was Custer Battlefield National Monument.
I first met Doug in June 1983. I had just made the drive from Denver to the battlefield in a record 6.5 hours. As I walked up to the visitor center I heard a huge, booming voice of a man coming from the patio. It was a ranger giving a battle talk. The voice was impossible to ignore; it was passionate and spoke with confidence. As I approached the patio, I was surprised to find that the booming voice was coming from a young man who leaned on a cane and stood only about four feet tall. It was Doug Keller.
Anyone listening to Doug present his views of the Custer fight knew Doug was as knowledgeable as they could come. After Doug completed his talk, I waited until all the visitors had finished with their questions and then approached him. I introduced myself and told him how impressed I was with his work. He returned my compliment with a big smile, reached out and we shook hands. It was a beginning of a close friendship.
During our conversation, we were even more surprised to learn that we lived only 15 miles from each other in Colorado. Doug was a student at the University of Northern Colorado where he would graduate with a degree in history. We agreed to get in touch with each other when Doug returned home at the end of the season.
We did. Either at his home, or mine, we spent hours discussing the Custer fight and other stories of the Plains Indian Wars. My kids adored him and showed respect for him. This was an unusual experience for Doug. The only thing that bothered him were children's stares.
Doug suffered from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), commonly known as brittle bone disease. A simple fall could easily break several bones. Nearly every bone in his body were broken when he was born. Extremely caring and giving parents raised Doug. Charles and Becky Keller shared an understanding with their son that, even with his disease, he could still accomplish all of his dreams. And, Doug did.
In August 1983, a plains fire swept over the battlefield. Doug and his fellow rangers helped save the visitor center from the flames by turning on the garden hose and pouring water over the building. Doug called me as soon as he could to tell me the news. It was unreal he said; the battlefield looked completely different.
Doug couldn’t wait to show me the fire's effect on the battlefield, so he and I hit the road in October 1983 for a quick weekend trip. We arrived about 2 p.m., went inside and talked with Chief Historian Neil Mangum and other staff. Neil told Doug he’d have to do the 4 p.m. battle talk, which Doug was more than happy to comply. But, first, Doug wanted to take me down Deep Ravine Trail.
It had been raining for days. The battlefield was muddy and slippery. I asked Doug if he really wanted to go down there – it didn’t look safe. I could look real quick, I told him, but he was anxious to see it for himself. We made about 30 yards down the trial, with me in the lead, when I suddenly heard a very loud crack. It sounded like someone had snapped a thick piece of wood in two. I turned around to find Doug on the ground with his left leg bent under him.
I could tell he was in extreme pain. Doug looked up at me and calmly told me not to move him, but to hurry to the visitor center, get Neil, and call an ambulance. I’ll never forget Doug’s words, “I know my body better than even the doctors. I’ve broken my femur. This doesn’t look good.”
I ran to the visitor center to find that Neil and other staff were still in his office. I told them what happened. They didn’t believe me! “This is a joke, right?” Neil asked. Just 10 minutes earlier all of us had been cracking jokes.
When the realization set in that it wasn’t a joke, an ambulance was called. A person with brittle bones needs professionals handling them in cases like this. It was late evening before Doug was finally transported from the clinic at Crow Agency to the hospital in Billings.
Words cannot express the sadness I felt seeing Doug in the hospital. His parents were on their way from Colorado. I was so depressed that I returned home the next day not even stopping at the battlefield.
Like all cases such as this that Doug experienced, he handled them honorably. What a brave young man he was.
It was June 1985 when Doug and I climbed into his car to start the drive from Colorado to the battlefield. We’d be working there together and sharing apartment A on site. That summer, working at the battlefield with Doug, was an incredible experience; one that I’ll treasure for all of my life.
Every workday, Doug and I would start at Neil Mangum’s office to see what projects he might have for us to work on, and to check the program schedule for our battle talks.
One morning found us in for a very interesting day. Neil told us that he had some film producers due there by 9 a.m. to take a tour of the battlefield. They were in pre-production for the made-for-television movie, “Son of the Morning Star.”
The producers arrived before Doug and I left the office. Turns out we were surprised to find the teleplay was to be written by Melissa Mathison, then wife of Harrison Ford. We were really shocked to see that Ford and their friend, songwriter Jimmy Buffett had come along for the ride.
After Neil and the producers left the office just Doug and I remained in the room with Ford and Mathison. We struck up an interesting conversation about the battle and most specifically, art of the battle. I told Doug that Melissa was a great screenwriter and that she wrote the screenplay for the film, “E.T.” – I’ll never forget; Doug’s smile just beamed and he said to Melissa, “E.T. is my favorite movie.”
Later that summer, after I returned to my regular day job, Doug told me that Melissa came back to spend several days researching for her teleplay. Doug was curator then, so he and Melissa spent each day together in the archives. It was the highlight of Doug’s summer.
During our summer as roommates, we’d spend each evening either at Last Stand Hill, or Calhoun Hill, or Reno-Benteen Battlefield just sitting, talking, and listening to the trains running along the tracks beside Interstate-90. It was a peaceful time; our friendship grew.
On our days off we’d head up to Billings. Our routine was to go to McDonalds for lunch, walk around the mall, and then catch a movie (believe me folks, in 1985 that was about the only choice for entertainment and food in Billings). Chris Summitt would usually join us as well. Chris was another ranger that everyone envied – he gave the most dramatic battle talks. He knew how to keep visitors on the edge of their seats.
It never failed. Each time we went to Billings strangers would come over to us and tell us they saw us give a battle talk. They always came to Doug first. It was awesome to see Doug beam with pride.
In 1988, Doug applied for a position as museum technician at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, La Junta, Colorado. Doug asked me if I’d be a reference for him. “Of course, I would,” I said. I didn’t expect a phone call, but one finally came from the superintendent of the fort. We talked a long time about Doug’s qualifications – that was easy when one expressed their thoughts about Doug. Doug got the job.
It was difficult to see Doug leave, but I was very proud of him. We would not see much of each other after that. I was busy; Doug was hundreds of miles away. But, we stayed in touch for a while.
I know he wanted to return to Little Bighorn someday. It never happened, but in my heart I will always remember him there. In a way, at least in my way, he has returned there.
God bless his soul,
Photos below provided by Bob Reece
Recent photos below provided by Steve Black of Pea Ridge Battlefield
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022