Friend of the earth: Edwardsville educator impresses all who know him

News-DemocratApril 21, 2013 

Sierra Club members in Madison County have a running joke that going on a hike with Rich Keating is like taking a science class.

He has an encyclopedic knowledge of trees, flowers and other plants and a knack for explaining the natural world in a way that's understandable and entertaining.

Last weekend, Rich had barely stepped foot on a trail at Watershed Nature Center in Edwardsville when he spotted more than 30 turtles on logs in the lake.

"That's amazing," he said. "It's not unusual to see turtles sunning themselves on rocks or logs along streams in the Missouri Ozarks, but never that many in one place."

Rich had come prepared for such discoveries. He used his camera's zoom lens to get a closer look. One turtle had a large hole in his shell. Algae grew on another.

"Those two are males," said Rich, who cut his naturalist teeth as a ranger at Grand Teton National Park in the early '60s. "See how their shells flare out like the roof on a Japanese pagoda? The female's shell comes straight down."

Rich, 75, of Edwardsville, is a research associate at Missouri Botanical Garden, an environmental activist and a retired biology professor who taught 26 years at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

He recently was honored with the Sustainability Leadership Award by the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability at SIUE.

The awards committee included George Henderson, 72, of Edwardsville, a retired physics professor whose job was to examine a condensed version of Rich's voluminous resume.

"Having known him as a colleague for a long time, I was just awed by how much he had done outside the university," George said.

Rich co-founded the Sierra Club's Piasa Palisades Group in Alton in 1972, the Heartland Prairie in Alton in 1977 and The Nature Institute in Godfrey in the early '80s.

He served on the first Watershed Nature Center board in 1991, spent eight years on the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and now is vice president of the James and Aune Nelson Foundation.

"He's been a steady, reliable stalwart (in the local environmental movement)," said Bob Larson, 68, of Alton, a board member for The Nature Institute.

Rich has authored or co-authored 117 publications, ranging from academic books to field guides, articles in scientific journals to abstracts for national meetings.

His "magnum opus" is "Anatomy of the Monocotyledons IX: Acoraceae and Araceae," a 327-page book on a family of flowering plants that includes Jack-in-the-pulpits, philodendrons, calla lilies and skunk cabbage.

Rich's extensive travels culminated last year with a climb on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (19,341 feet) with his brother, Geoff.

"That was a world-class experience," Rich said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done physically. But the guides were good. They fed us well, and they kept us moving slowly and steadily."

Rich also is a nature photographer and woodworker, who once built a 17-foot, redwood-strip canoe, complete with cane seats. Friends tease him about his many gadgets for camping, hiking and biking.

"I think he has owned about 92 different types of camp stoves, including one that used sycamore balls for fuel," said fellow Sierra Club member Steve Sands, 52, of Alton.

Rich is perhaps most proud of two sons with his wife, the late Jody Keating. Phil Keating is a geographer and government map-maker. The late Gordon Keating was a geologist and volcanologist.

Rich feels environmental advocacy is vitally important at this time in history, mainly because of alarming rates of species extinction and population growth.

"The world is facing a net increase of 219,000 new people, new human beings, every day," he said. "That's essentially a new St. Louis region every week. Our freshwater supplies are being used up at a very rapid rate. It's estimated in the next five years, 300 million Chinese and Indian families will have their wells run dry.

"The reason that environmentalism and an attitude of environmental stewardship is so important is that we only have one earth, and we need to do what we can to protect it."

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