Who’s the chubby kid standing near the orchestra, I asked while sitting in the choir loft of Gulfport’s First Baptist Church? Don’t you know, replied a fellow choir member? His name’s Keith Ballard. He’s singing the boy soprano part in our cantata. And thus began my friendship with Keith. He was in the 6th grade, and if memory serves, his heavenly voice changed during the show’s run. He struggled onward through his song though, smiling a big smile. Little did I know at the time that Keith’s smile would be my last remembrance of him.
Not long after the cantata, Keith joined FBC’s Youth Group. As an FBC chaperone, oft times I went to summer camps, on choir tours, and led Vacation Bible School. Keith was always there. When he was in the 8th or 9th grade, we loaded into the old Bluebird bus, and off we went to Red Bluff, located outside Foxworth, Mississippi. Red Bluff is a gorgeous place, with miles of hiking trails, and the scenery is breathtaking. There are also huge hills—hence the term bluff—of red clay. Kids and chaperones alike slid down the hillsides, hoopin’ and hollerin’ with glee. But then the real work began.
At the bottom of the hill, we discovered the only way back to the top was a steep climb. Keith had not lost his “baby fat” by that time. So climbing was a bit of a problem. I was enlisted to push him up the hillside. He’d lean against the red clay. I’d get under his wobbly behind and push. He’d grab a tree branch or cleft in the clay and pull. We’d giggle. And giggle some more. He’d lose his grip. I’d stumble. And then in a rolling mass of dirty shorts, tee-shirts, and gritty skin, we’d plunge to the bottom of the hill, howling with laughter. I can see and hear our marine-like youth director yelling from the top of Red Bluff—Kalberg! Ballard! Pull yourselves together and get up here! Keith would shoot me a big smile, and we’d try again.
As the years passed, Keith matured into a strikingly handsome young man; blonde, slender, and tall. While in High School, the theater bug bit him and bit hard. I directed his Senior Class play, “The Antics of Andrew.” Keith portrayed an old fussbudget who gets into all sorts of trouble. He also accompanied a fellow cast member on the piano in a rousing rendition of “It’s a Sin to Tell A Lie.” It may have been a sin, but this is no lie—the number always brought down the house! Keith and I were together on stage three times. In the late 70s, he portrayed Joe Hardy to my Mr. Applegate in GLT’s “Damn Yankees!” Then we plied the Mississippi River together in “Showboat.” He was Gaylord Ravenal. I was Captain Andy. KNS’s “Sweeney Todd” was our final treading of the boards together. He was the evil Mr. Todd. I was the man-child Toby. When the rehearsals became tedious, when the performances were exhausting, Keith and I could always be found in a corner, giggling about something. He’d smile. I’d smile. And we’d laugh a bit more.
However, life was not always a laughing matter for dear Keith. Like all of God’s creations, Keith had his own covey of demons with which to deal. He struggled with those demons for most of his life. Dealing with them was like trying to climb Red Bluff. He’d grab onto something or someone for help in his climb. He’d lose his grip. He’d tumble to the bottom of the bluff; struggle to regain his balance, momentum, and love of life. He’d try to smile again.
I last saw dear Keith in February 2020. We attended an FBC Business Meeting. Thankfully, I saw him before he saw me. I was shocked! He was haggard and stooped. Eyes sunken. Cane by his side. When the meeting adjourned, our eyes met. He hobbled to me, and I gave him a big bear-hug. His once taught body sagged. But then, as always, he looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes. He whispered something silly in my ear, and just like old times, we giggled. I told him that I loved him. I told him to call me …we’d do lunch. Carefully putting one foot ahead of the other, he walked slowly to the door. Just before opening it, he turned to me and smiled. It was that smile, his last smile, that I will always remember. Rest in peace, dear friend. Now you’re Home—no more tears or pain or fears. Home forever! Keith, I’ll see you soon. And like days of old, we’ll climb Heaven’s Red Bluff together. And once again, giggle and smile.
The Titanic Dinner in New Orleans, 1998, with Jimmy and David.