Benita Keller poses for a portrait (Photo courtesy Hagerstown Community College, edited by author)

Community Mourns Loss of Former University Photography Professor and Activist, Benita Keller

Shepherdstown, W.Va – It’s not often that children from pastoral Kearneysville, W.Va., grow up to tour the world, taking photographs during post-Soviet election celebrations in Red Square or with itinerant sheep herders in the Peruvian countryside.

But that was the life former Shepherd University photography professor Benita Keller, who recently passed away from COVID-19 complications, was determined to live.

Raised in rural Jefferson County, Benita Keller spent her youth riding horses through the orchards that peppered the region’s idyllic hills.

Benita Keller standing in a stream in Shepherdstown, WV, 2005 (Photo by Andrew Ford)

By the time she started teaching photography at Shepherd, Ms. Keller had been an administrative assistant and a real estate agent; raised a daughter, Sarah, whom she loved dearly; studied under renowned photographer John Gossage; won numerous awards; and had become a well-travelled jetsetter in her own right, finding herself in Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, and Nigeria.

In recent years, much of her time was dedicated to demonstrating against Rockwool, a Danish corporation whose newly constructed factory near Kearneysville has worried local environmental groups that local air quality and the regional watershed will be degraded.

Ms. Keller’s dedication to her community was deeply sincere, and she injected every endeavor with a certain eagerness. Former colleagues, students, and friends reflect on the impact Ms. Keller had on their lives.

Michael Mendez, an adjunct art instructor in the Department of Contemporary Art and Theater, recalled how supportive Ms. Keller was, not only to her colleagues, but to everyone.Benita Keller standing in a stream in Shepherdstown, WV, 2005 (Photo by author)

“As a friend Benita was generous and supportive, always there when needed, with what was needed. As an artist Benita was inspiring in her tireless pursuit of a broad spectrum of photographic activities, an active mind pushing the boundaries of materials and concept,” he said.

Benita Keller frequently rode her bicycle (Photo courtesy of We Love Benita Keller Facebook group)

“As a teacher her relentless enthusiasm and engagement encouraged both students and co-workers to strive for more, more than three decades worth of students will remember her as a highlight of their educational experience. She was such an integral part of the Arts community that her influence will be felt for years to come.”

A former student of Ms. Keller’s, Victoria Windmiller is now a teacher at a college preparatory school, where she sits as the fine art department chair.

Benita was a mentor who gave me confidence and helped channel my artistic vision. She was my inspiration,” she said. “Between her and Dow (Benedict, former dean of the School of Arts and Humanities) I do what I do now because of them.”

Michael Theis, staff writer for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, is another former protégé of Ms. Keller, whose influence continues to guide him in his professional career.

“Benita Keller taught people how to go through the world with a camera, how to be in the moment,” he said. “But even more, she taught people to always ask, ‘What’s the relationship between these subjects?’ when composing a photograph and looking for a critical juxtaposition.”

For Mr. Theis, she showed people how to understand and convey the humanity of the subjects in a photograph, the richness of life.

This appears to be a running current in the memories of those who Benita Keller encountered — her unabashed exultation and love for kinship and shared experience.

Morgan Wisniewski Sell, a local activist and friend to Ms. Keller, noted the profound bond the two developed through community and organizing.

“Benita was my neighbor for six years and watched my kids grow up. She watched me grow up, too. We connected through art and activism, much of which was related to Rockwool. She was our great leader,” she said.

“She fought so hard to bring awareness to the Rockwool issue, travelling to every event, participating in non-violent civil disobedience against heavy industry in Jefferson County. She was endlessly devoted to protecting the place that she called home.”

A celebration of life for Ms. Keller will be held on Saturday, Nov. 13, at 1:30 p.m. For more information and to share in her memory, you can join the We Love Benita Keller Facebook group.

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