David Keesler ’84 – My Carolina Story

For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings, and we are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.

“I came from a house divided.”

David Keesler

Jan. 16, 2016

Listen Now

Friends, I recall from my first year on the board the first time I was present when one of our colleagues delivered her “Carolina Story.” I remember thinking two things: First, “Wow. That was great.” And second, “Man, I hope Doug ’70 never asks me to do that.”

I did call Doug the other day for some guidance before preparing these remarks. I was especially concerned about the appropriate length. Doug said I could talk as long as I want … but he added that everyone would get up and leave for the Carolina vs. State basketball game after 10 minutes.

This is a harder assignment than I had anticipated  … for reasons that I suppose should have been obvious to me before Wednesday. Talking about yourself is a little uncomfortable. I would prefer to talk about someone else — perhaps professional role models I admire like Wade Smith ’60 (’63 LLBJD) or Tony Rand ’61 (’64 LLBJD) or Rich Leonard ’71 (’73 MEd) — whose Carolina stories are a lot more interesting than mine. But I will give it a shot.

I am a proud Tar Heel, a member of the Carolina class of 1984, but I came from a house divided. My late dad, Lenoir Chambers Keesler, and all three of his brothers attended Davidson College during and shortly after World War II. My brother Tom followed suit. My late mom and my brother Lee attended Duke University. Mom left Duke after a year to marry Dad, a mitigating factor. Lee stayed all four years, played No. 1 on the Duke golf team and turned out pretty well, notwithstanding his choice of the wrong shade of blue. My oldest brother Bill and I both attended Carolina, beneficiaries of the Morehead program. We were preceded to Chapel Hill by our grandfather, Edward Yates Keesler, class of 1915 (’16 MS), and then followed by Bill’s son, William Presnell Keesler ’08. I married a Carolina girl, Susan, class of 1987. Now, our oldest daughter, a high school senior, waits and hopes.

As I look back, I think I was scared to death to go to college. Since my brothers were older, I grew up very much like an only child — sheltered and protected. By the time I started seventh grade, I had the place to myself. I went to a small, independent day school in Charlotte where I knew everyone, knew how things worked, and there were few surprises … all of them good. I had been inclined to go to a smaller college, but fate intervened. I went from a high school class of 59 to a freshman class of thousands in one two-and-a-half hour August drive.

I was the fourth son Mom and Dad dropped at college. I don’t want to say it was old hat to them, but the car barely stopped rolling when we pulled up at Graham dorm. I still have a vivid memory of standing on the steps of the dorm watching them pull away for the return trip to Charlotte. I imagined them high-fiving in the front seat, though I doubt they did. Thirty minutes later, two guys from a fraternity showed up. This led to some things that were not all good. More on that later.

Freshman fall was an unforgettable time — like drinking from a fire hose in every conceivable way. As I sat to write this, vivid memories from that time returned:

  • The organized bedlam of orientation. Man, it was hot. There were armies of orientation counselors in ill-fitting T-shirts trying to be helpful. Thank goodness they have changed that process. I do recall sitting in Carmichael Auditorium listening to then-Student Body President Bob Saunders ’82 address the freshman class. I couldn’t hear a word he said, but we later became friends, law school classmates and fellow members of the North Carolina Bar.
  • Drop-add in Woollen Gym. Some of the younger people here will find this hilarious. I recall that the process of dropping and adding courses was conducted in the old Woollen Gymnasium. It was nuts in a fun sort of way. You would wait in lines for courses and trade cards back and forth as in some elaborate game of academic poker. It was hot as hell in there. What a system. Pretty good place to meet girls, though. Well, other people told me that …
  • I tried out for and made the UNC JV men’s soccer team. Most of us were 18; the guy coaching us was 22. No one came to see us play, except for an occasional girlfriend, a parent passing through town or someone who got lost looking for the varsity game. But the uniforms were Carolina blue and white and said “UNC” on them, and that felt very cool. My parents came to a game, which is a great memory. Sadly, the program was defunded after my freshman year. I wanted to keep playing.
  • I mentioned those two fraternity guys who showed up at my dorm. I did join a fraternity after going through rush my freshman fall. Some of it was a lot of fun. I cannot confirm that I might have learned some lessons that were not so good: Too much peppermint schnapps on a hot football Saturday at Kenan Stadium can lead to unfortunate results; it was the early 1980s — some brownies provided at parties had ingredients that Mom did not use at home; and fraternity Hell Week and an 8 a.m. “French 4” class allowing only three total absences did not go together well.
  • I studied like a crazy person my freshman fall, making a 3.9 GPA. I guess I thought I would flunk out if I didn’t. That’s really what I thought. I was so nervous before my first final, I got up at 2 a.m., showered and dressed, all the while thinking it was time to go to the exam. Only then did I notice it was pitch black outside and no one was awake in the dorm! True story. Seriously.
  • Fun places to eat and drink: Time Out biscuits. Greek grilled cheese at Hector’s. French toast at the Carolina Coffee Shop. Dinner entrees by number at the Porthole. Fried chicken at Mama Dip’s. Sutton’s, of course. In hindsight, maybe I should have gotten an anticipatory prescription for Lipitor. And to wash anything down, a Big Orange or a Big Lemon Orange at the old Colonial Drug Store on West Franklin. In all my trips to get a Big LO, I never saw anyone actually purchase any drugstore item there; they were all covered with dust.
  • Picture this one with me: It’s a beautiful day in your freshman fall, maybe a Friday in October. It’s 65 degrees, and there’s not a cloud in the Carolina blue sky. Light breeze. It’s late morning at class change time, and you’re sitting at your favorite campus spot on a stone wall or a step or a stoop watching the world go by. The weekend beckons. And you think, yes, this will do.

As freshman fall passed to freshman spring and beyond, I came to really treasure the academic experience at Carolina. Nothing symbolized that to me more than the Reading Room in Wilson Library, which in those days was open for daily use by students. Those windows, the high ceilings, the long tables and the lamps really made you feel you were doing something important. I tended to choose classes, where possible, based on professor, and boy, did I have some great ones: “Education 41” with Gerald Unks; “Modern Drama” with Kimball King; “French Revolution” with G.V. Taylor; “Astronomy 31” with Wayne Christiansen; “Physical Education 41” with Professor Bill Lovingood ’59 (’63 PhD); “North Carolina History” with William Powell ’40 (’47 BSLS, ’47 MA). Awesome.

It was also an amazing time to be a Carolina student and sports fan. Carolina’s football team featured quarterback, Rod Elkins ’84, running backs, “Famous Amos” Lawrence ’80 and Kelvin Bryant ’83, and legendary defender and future NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence “L.T.” Taylor ’81. The basketball program was on fire. My freshman year, Carolina made the national final, losing to Indiana in a very tight game. The next year, James Worthy ’85, Sam Perkins ’84, Matt Doherty ’84, Jimmy Black ’82 and a skinny freshman named Michael Jordan ’86 took Coach Dean Smith to his first national title. The team played its home games then in Carmichael Auditorium, a really cool, more intimate venue I’m sorry some never got to experience. Men’s lacrosse was a perennial powerhouse (one of my fraternity brothers, Ted Millspaugh ’83, now a lawyer in Baltimore, was a starter on those teams). Women’s soccer was beginning to build its dynasty under Coach Anson Dorrance ’74.

Like any truly great University, Carolina in my time was a hotbed of debate over the issues of the day, and I loved that. There were presidential elections in 1980 and 1984, and so I experienced part of two national campaign seasons while at Chapel Hill. In 1980, I remember going to see independent candidate Congressman John Anderson from Illinois in Memorial Hall. He didn’t do too well in the election, but he sure packed the place. The Pit was always abuzz with student groups raising awareness about some issue or another. Divestiture of University funds from apartheid-era South Africa was a big issue at the time. Students erected shanties on the main quad in front of South Building in protest. Hard to believe, but at the time I graduated, Nelson Mandela, the future president of South Africa, was still six years away from being released from prison.

I mentioned my friend Bob Saunders, who was student body president my freshman year. Student government was so interesting at Chapel Hill. In my era, students elected about everything  — student body president, class officers, Carolina Athletic Association president, Campus Governing Council speaker and, interestingly, Daily Tar Heel editor. My junior year, a guy named John Drescher ’83 served as DTH editor; he now holds a similar position with a slightly larger paper in Raleigh. The student body president my senior year was Kevin Monroe ’84, who now works with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx. Kevin prevailed in a run-off election over a controversial candidate who went by the name of “Hugh G. Reckshun.” Seriously, he campaigned with a cardboard container for a six-pack of beer over his head. He nearly won. Gosh, in 2016, something about that seems oddly familiar.

Probably the most important single thing that happened for me at Carolina was my involvement in the Honor System. I served on the Honor Court my sophomore, junior and senior years; my senior year I served as chair. The Honor System has a long, rich tradition at Carolina. The Honor Court, of course, hears cases in which students are alleged to have committed violations of the Honor Code or the Campus Code. The cases are prosecuted and defended by student members of the student attorney general’s staff. Many, though not all, of the cases involved academic cheating, the normal sanction for which was suspension. It was a weighty but fulfilling responsibility.

In addition to working on the cases, members of the Honor Court and the student attorney general’s staff would make presentations around campus about the Honor System. I spent many interesting hours my senior year traveling around campus, with my friend (then and now), Student Attorney General Hunter Hoover ’84 (’88 MD), now a doctor in Charlotte, talking to students in dorm lounges about the Honor System. Similarly, teamed with professors, we would make presentations to UNC athletic teams. I got lucky and drew the assignment of speaking to the men’s basketball team one year with legendary English Professor George Lensing (who was with us at dinner last night). Coach Smith was incredibly kind.

One experience my senior year demonstrates what a neat opportunity my Honor Court experience turned out to be. In going through some materials in our file cabinet at the Honor Court offices in the Student Union, I discovered an old honors thesis titled The History of the Honor System at UNC. It was written by a former chair of the Honor Court by the name of James G. Exum Jr. ’57. In 1984, Jim Exum was an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. I sheepishly called Justice Exum’s chambers to tell him I had found his college paper in our files.  He invited me over to Raleigh for lunch at the Mecca Restaurant, and that began a friendship that continues today. We exchanged emails just last week.

The point of the Honor Court is certainly not to provide training for aspiring lawyers. But in my case, the focus on issues of fair process, justice, mercy, the presumption of innocence and the like lit a fire that led me to what ended up being my professional calling. I was fortunate, also, that the Morehead program provided me a summer interning with a police department in suburban Washington, D.C., and a summer interning for a state trial judge. I feel very lucky that, among so many other lessons, Carolina provided me a sense of my future professional calling into the law and now the judiciary.

After leaving Carolina, I attended Virginia law school, clerked for a judge, worked as a lawyer in private practice and served as both a state and federal prosecutor. Now, I am serving in my 12th year as a U.S. magistrate judge in the federal court in Charlotte. It is a privilege I treasure but do not deserve. Every day, the Constitution comes to life in our building as parties to criminal and civil matters come to have their cases resolved, they trust fairly, by the court and by juries of their peers. Great lawyers like Wade Smith occasionally come to argue their client’s cases. It is a remarkable thing to be part of, it truly is. I love it.

So, looking back on my four years at Carolina, what did it all mean? I am mindful of what Dr. Blouin said in his moving remarks last night. I feel fortunate. Fortunate to have attended this wonderful university that provided such a rich growth experience to me over four years’ time. I feel inspired. Inspired by the professors who taught me here and the many gifted and talented and passionate students I met here, who expanded and redefined what might be possible. I feel grateful. Grateful for the experiences UNC provided to me that helped me to find a professional calling I treasure every day.

Carolina, you are a priceless gem. Thank you for listening. Beat State.