Dr. Jack Keller

Dr. Keller was on SRA’s board of directors and traveled to our projects offering tremendous insight on how to improve our program. We will miss him. Below is his Obituary.

Jack KellerPhoto


Logan – Dr. Jack Keller, recognized internationally for his creativity, innovations and expertise in irrigation and water engineering and management, passed away in Denver on Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, at the age of 85. At the time of his death, Jack was working with International Development Enterprises to develop affordable irrigation technologies for small farmers in developing countries; he had just returned from a trip to Honduras.
“Irrigation,” Jack wrote, “is very important to the well-being of the world.” Jack never retired. He dedicated his entire career to addressing challenges related to irrigation, or, as he put it, “the act of applying water to land … an art, a science and plain hard work.” He felt lucky to be an irrigation engineer, likening his relationship with irrigation to a love affair. Jack was well known in the national and international irrigation engineering communities, earning the respect of his colleagues for his creative, holistic problem solving based on rigorous engineering principles. He was the recipient of numerous professional awards and honors including the Scientific American 50 Award, which recognizes “visionaries from the worlds of research, industry and politics whose recent accomplishments point toward a brighter technological future for everyone.” Jack was a dedicated member of the National Academy of Engineering and willingly fulfilled member responsibilities for more than 25 years.
Jack started his career in irrigation with the W.R. Ames Company before joining the engineering faculty at Utah State University in 1960. He served as department head of Agricultural and Irrigation Engineering from 1980-1986. Through his teaching and research at USU, Jack mentored individuals from all over the world who would go on to become leaders in irrigation engineering and water resources management in their home countries. He founded and served as CEO of Keller-Bliesner Engineering LLC, an irrigation and water resources engineering firm based in Logan, Utah, providing consulting services to clients in the U.S. and internationally. Jack’s work took him to more than 60 countries in the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia.
“Impossible,” as Jack was fond of saying, “is just a problem that takes a little longer to solve.” He demonstrated this philosophy by solving seemingly intractable social and technical water-related problems through a combination of dogged persistence and an ability to connect with people from all walks of life. Jack also coined the phrases “You can’t not know what you already know” and “It is incredibly difficult to get someone to understand something that is to their disadvantage to understand;” both of which he used when pointing out inconvenient truths. Among the people he worked with – from educated professionals to illiterate small-scale farmers – he was recognized for his ability to make highly complex technical concepts understandable to all audiences.
Unusual for a technical expert, Jack grasped early on in his career the social, political and cultural aspects of irrigation projects in developing countries, urging foreign experts “to spend time in a country assimilating its standards and culture, in order to identify what really is appropriate.” Well beyond an age when most accomplished professionals would be content with providing advice on projects from afar, Jack continued to travel to remote locations in developing countries to visit with farmers so that he could help them improve their farming operations. His travel schedule for this Fall and Winter was to include Myanmar and India.
Jack overcame physical and intellectual challenges in his pursuit of excellence. He fractured his neck while body surfing in Morocco in 1985, significantly reducing his range of motion, but he continued to travel to remote, impoverished regions all over the world with a level of energy and enthusiasm that would have been admirable in someone half his age. Despite being dyslexic, Jack was a voracious reader, authored more than 100 technical papers and reports as well as two textbooks, and received four U.S. patents.
Jack was a family man in the broadest sense, enjoying time spent with his relatives while also becoming “family” to people that he worked with and mentored in Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas. On a series of trips to West Africa, between field visits to irrigation projects, Jack taught a Ghanaian friend, Issa, how to cook meat and fish. Issa went on to become a professional chef, calling “Grandpa” periodically to provide updates and solicit advice.
When not solving vexing water-related problems, Jack enjoyed games and projects with his grandchildren, cooking for family gatherings, tending his garden and supporting community groups engaged in everything from Fair Trade to environmental, economic and social equity issues. His grandchildren recall Grandpa Jack having a strong competitive spirit that was manifested every summer in backyard croquet matches.
Prior to earning his Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Colorado in 1953, Jack served in the Navy and the Air Force reserves. He also spent a couple of years, in his words, “bumming around” the western United States and Alaska with his brother Carl, who was suffering from PTSD after being blown off of two aircraft carriers in World War II. Jack and Carl earned money in a variety of ways including surveying for USGS, working on a dude ranch in southern Arizona, and assisting with shows in Las Vegas that had Jack performing the soft shoe shuffle. Jack earned a Master’s degree in Irrigation Engineering from Colorado State University in 1955 and a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Irrigation Engineering from Utah State University in 1967.
Jack is survived by his wife of 59 years, Sally Altick Keller, whom he met while studying at the University of Colorado. Jack and Sally spent their three-month-long honeymoon at Martin Mountain fire lookout in the Challis National Forest in Idaho; they hauled drinking and cooking water from the River of No Return – which also provided them with a steady diet of fish. Other survivors are his brother Eugene, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., sons Andy (Lauren) and Jeff (Renee) of Logan, Utah, daughter Judith (Nelson Cronyn) of Washington, D.C., and grandchildren Ian, Antonia, Maria, Malayna, Erica, Max, Avery, and Zayk.
Jack, a member of the Baha’i Faith, was buried in Boulder, Colo., Nov. 16, 2013, according to Baha’i burial customs. A Celebration of Life gathering in Jack’s memory will be held in Spring 2014 in Logan; details to be announced later.
Jack’s family suggests memorial contributions in his name be given to Expanding Lives, (www.expandinglives.org, 5541 N. Saint Louis Ave. Chicago, IL 60625) and Intermountain Bioneers (www.intermountainbioneers.org, c/o Wells Fargo Bank, 5 S. Main Street, Logan, UT 84321).
Published in Logan Herald Journal on Dec. 1, 2013
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