The passing of former City Recorder Nancy Keen leaves a legacy for her community and fellow workers in many arenas. She served as a role model for all employees of city hall and was the measure for what a good employee should strive to be.
Keen began working at city hall in January of 1970, and was appointed Portland City Recorder on November 28, 1972, when Jackie Freeman resigned. Fred White was mayor at the time of her appointment. She continued as city recorder under the terms of White (2 terms), Fred Creasy (1 term), Bill Rawls (3 terms), Talmadge Ausbrooks (5 months), Lloyd Deasy (1 term), Bobby Wilkinson (2 terms) and Dan Jenkins (1 term). She retired under the administration of Jenkins due to health reasons. She was a few months short of completing 30 years with the city.
In September of 1997, Keen received the Distinguished Service Award from the Tennessee Association of Municipal Clerks and Recorders. Mayor Jenkins nominated her for this award.
He wrote in the nomination letter, “She has always displayed extraordinary patience and compassion for the elderly, even going into their homes when necessary to explain about taxes, tax relief, to notarize documents, and do whatever they might need in relation to their city business. She has even gotten out of bed at night on two or three occasions to go out with city officials and obtain easements for utility projects for the convenience of the customer rather than the city, or herself. When we refer to a ‘public servant’, this nominee definitely is a servant in the truest sense of the word.”
As city recorder, Keen’s workload was overwhelming at times. She was responsible for the city’s finances, all meetings, minutes, maintenance of city records including deeds, bonds, municipal codes, supervision of office staff, and water and gas billing. She was often seen carrying work home in a cardboard box, especially at budget time, because there was so much under her umbrella that it was impossible to complete all the work in a normal workday.
Some still remember Keen’s earliest days at city hall, when cigar boxes were used as money tills. Virginia Brown, Denise (Miller) Geminden, Faye (Sheucraft) Temple, and later on, Sarah Cox, and Pam (Creasey) Woodcock all pitched in and helped each other get all the work done.
Assistant to the Mayor Teresa Keen said, “I came to work as Water Billing Clerk in 1977. At that time, approximately 900 gas and 1,692 water bills were handwritten each month and postage affixed for mail out to customers.
“Nancy taught me so much. She was one of the most hard-working and compassionate people I’ve ever known. She went out of her way to do things that were not really her responsibility, especially for the elderly. She expected the same from those of us in her office. She was quiet and unassuming, never putting herself ‘out front’ or considering herself important. Most people really loved her and many customers thought that no one at city hall could wait on them except Nancy.
“She had an extraordinary work ethic; the kind that once was common, but is rarely found today. She would get up early enough at times to help her dad or her sons in the tobacco patch before coming to work at city hall. Most days she would go home during lunch break and start supper for the family in the crockpot. And even though the city’s meetings were held at night, she somehow managed to attend most of her boys’ school and sporting events.”
In the days of a part-time mayor, she was sometimes considered responsible for the smooth running of city hall. She never complained for the many times it was necessary to re-do already finished agendas and meeting materials, if the mayor or a council member decided to make changes or additions, but didn’t realize how much work was involved. In pre-computer days, agendas had to be re-typed, copies discarded and made again, with all the sorting, assembling and stapling done by hand — no touch-of-a button copiers like those used today.
One of her past co-workers commented, “She never did anything that would cast a stigma on the city. She did not want any citizen or fellow employee to think badly of her or the city. And she treated everyone the same — no one was ever belittled.”
Portland Mayor Ken Wilber said, “First, I have known Nancy Keen all my life. She was a very good person and a fine Christian lady who took time for you, and made you feel good. She had a caring sense about her.
“Second, as a councilman and when I was in public works, she was there. She was very good with her duties and very caring about the employees and citizens of Portland. She was very frugal with the people’s money and stayed within the budget, which was the proper way to manage the city budget.
“My thoughts and prayers go with the family. She was an important part of Portland’s history.”
Keen is quoted in a Portland Leader article from the 1970s as saying that what she wanted to do for Portland through her city job was “just to be able to make it a better place.”
Keen’s family and faith were top priorities. She and her husband Paul, who passed away in 2002, put God and family first, and were active members at Portland Church of Christ.
They were disciplinarians who successfully raised two boys, Ricky and Timmy, who are well respected in the community. They had four grandchildren that were their pride and joy, and they were always there for all of them — to the very end.
The Keen family made the following statement, “To us, Nancy Keen was our Mom, and then in 1990 she became our Nana. She was a hard worker as she grew up on a farm and worked for many years at the shirt factory in Portland before becoming City Recorder in 1972. She was always proud to work for the City of Portland. We believe that she enjoyed her job at city hall because it gave her an opportunity to show kindness and compassion to so many people in our community. We remember her by all the good memories we have with her, and by the values she taught us. She taught us through word and example to work hard, to be kind, and to love other people.”
Keen’s obituary can be found on The Portland Leader’s website at www.portlandleader.net.