An Appreciation: Rod Keating (1941–2020)

Rod Keating and fan club
Rod Keating taught English at Grace from 1992 to 2009. He is pictured here with students at Alumni Reunion 2015.

He would wear a tuxedo when administering his renowned final exam. He would “knight” kneeling students who got a perfect score on it, tapping their shoulders with a wand that substituted for a sword. He would interrupt an otherwise serious academic moment to tell outlandish stories like the one about his getting stuck in a shack on the side of a South American road that was being stormed by giant roaches.

Purposeful eccentricity was one of the hallmarks of Rod Keating’s approach to his work at Grace Church School, first as an upper-school English teacher and then as head of its writing workshop. “He wanted to figure out a new way to get kids to understand how to write, get into their minds, get into their hearts, get into their souls,” recalled Head of School George Davison. “He was perfect for Grace.”

Nothing better demonstrated Rod’s purposeful eccentricity in his teaching than the signature year-end grammar and editing test he developed for his writing workshop called the Muffing. (Impishly, he seldom gave the same explanation for the origin of the name twice.)

Given to everyone in the fifth through eighth grades—with the students in the lowest grade receiving the fewest questions and those in the highest the most—the test covered the building blocks of writing, ranging from the different parts of speech to how to produce different kinds of essays. The tuxedo Rod would don for the occasion was just one of the light touches he brought to the Muffing; taken together, they are the stuff of legend.

There were the zany acronyms that he invented to help students memorize his material. Who could forget CREEPY? Change, Relationship, Essence, Evaluation, Problem, Y (as in Why?) represented six of the eight angles he said were required to focus any writing topic. Or BARFO? It stands for Balanced, Accurate, Responsible, Factual, Objective—qualities Rod felt every journalist should strive for when writing or editing a story.

Students who answered all regular and extra credit questions correctly would be knighted as Muffeteers at an elaborate ceremony Rod called the Synapse of Induction and Elevation. It was held— where else?—in Muffingland, his nickname for the lightly trafficked, whimsically decorated area of the school that was home to the writing workshop.

“He turned this strange, poorly lit part of the school building into a magical intellectual playground,” said Brian Platzer, a student of Rod’s who’s now a middle-school English teacher at Grace.

What a special place it was: To reach the room where Rod held forth, his pupils used a hallway where students had volunteered their elective time to lovingly paint murals of his rhymes and riddles and mnemonic devices, assisted by a longtime art teacher, Beverly O’Mara. To this day, there’s a sign nearby reading “Welcome to Muffingland.”

The fun Rod brought to his teaching was in the service of turning out students who excelled in writing. It’s a measure of how well he succeeded that two or three of them a year would receive the prestigious awards bestowed by Scholastic Magazine for prowess in creative writing.

His wholehearted supportiveness of his students’ aspirations and achievements is cherished by those who took his courses. Julie Sharbutt of the class of 1996 recalled the seriousness with which he treated their enthusiasms. “He endowed kids with the respect that allowed them to grow up,” she said.

To say that Rod had prodigious work habits is an understatement. Weekdays, he would often spend up to 12 hours editing the writing of as many as 200 students and preparing for forthcoming workshops. Weekends, he’d return to school for more of the same, though the hours were fewer. The joke was that he often would spend more time editing students’ papers than his students did writing them.

John Roderick Keating was born Jan 5, 1941, in Buenos Aires, where his father, a New England native, was a textile engineer for an American manufacturing company. At age 12, Rod left Argentina to enter the Rumsey Hall School, a private elementary boarding school in Washington, Conn. A year later, he moved to another boarding school, The Gunnery (now the Frederick Gunn School), also in Washington, for high school. From there, he went on to Columbia College, where he graduated in 1962.

He took several teaching jobs after college and found time to write a book, “Guidelines: Composing and Responding to Essays,” (MacMillan, 1984) before coming to Grace in the early 1990s. George Davison, then Assistant Head, had been impressed with Rod’s teaching approach when they were both at the Birch Wathen School and asked him to apply for a job in the English department at Grace. Not surprisingly, he got the job.

Rod, who cut an imposing figure with his six-foot three-inch height and shock of sandy blond hair, would stay at Grace until he had to abandon teaching after suffering a massive stroke during his summer break in 2010. Though he could no longer speak, read or write, his interest in the school never flagged and he took enormous pleasure returning there regularly with his wife, Caroline, for various functions, including the recent celebration of GCS’s 125th anniversary.

Linda Cooper, Assistant to the Head of School, who often encountered him on such occasions, remembered how Rod’s warmth and kindness were undiminished by his stroke. “Even when he couldn’t speak any more,” she recalled, “he spoke with his eyes and his hands and when he hugged me, that said it all.”

Rod died on April 11, 2020.  Besides Caroline Keating, whom he wedded in 2000, he is survived by two stepsons from her previous marriage, Henry Thorne of Pittsburgh and Oakleigh Thorne of Amenia, N.Y.

A memorial service at Grace Church is tentatively planned for the summer of 2021. Please consider a donation in Rod’s memory to Grace Church School or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Remarks of former students and current faculty and staff members quoted in this article were delivered at an online remembrance of Rod hosted shortly after his death by Henry Thorne and Brian Platzer, who also contributed recollections about his former teaching colleague in subsequent interviews for this article.