Bulldog Bites

News and Views from the University of Redlands

One robe, two stories

Heather Johnston ’20 (left) wears a pastoral robe that once belonged to Donald Keuper ’54 and was donated to the Seminary to honor his life.

In spring 2019, the family of Donald Keuper ’54 (M.Div.) honored his life by gifting his pastoral robe to San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), with “the sincere hope that this robe might be used by young pastors at the Seminary, or at your discretion, perhaps given to a deserving student.” Donald’s wife, Betty, and her family shared his history in a letter to SFTS, and in turn, the eventual recipient of the robe, Heather Johnston ’20 (M.Div.), wrote the family to share her gratitude for such a special gift.

Below are excerpts of these letters.

Prior to matriculating at the Seminary, Donald E. Keuper graduated from Carroll College in Wisconsin and spent four years in the Army Medical Corps during World War II. During this time in his life, his path into serving the church and his Lord became clear. After graduating from SFTS, the first church he pastored was in Gruver, Iowa, and his career of church service also found him in churches in San Diego and San Jose, California. The final church that Don had the joy of serving was Skyland Community Church in Los Gatos, California.

All who knew Rev. Keuper knew him to be a warm, compassionate, and deeply caring man, who loved his God, family, friends, and those fortunate people in the churches he served. He was a charismatic preacher in the pulpit—a man who could infuse humor, life, and scripture into a sermon that not only taught the congregations in his churches, but also wrapped them in a warmth that comes from the Bible’s teachings and from belonging to a community of believers. He was a believer in God and the goodness of his fellow man. 

Don was a wonderful husband for 50 years to his wife, Betty, and an amazing father to three daughters, Carol, Deborah, and Janet. When he passed away in 2000, he left a loving family that included grandchildren Brett, Kaitlyn, Hilary, Holland, and Cassandra, who all love and miss their “Papa.” His sixth grandchild, Hayley, was born after his death, but has learned to love Papa thru the stories her family has told. 

Rev. Donald E. Keuper exemplified everything in his life that the SFTS strives to instill in its students. Your college can be justly proud of the graduate they produced in Rev. Keuper. And it is his family’s sincere hope that this small donation of his robe will help other young Seminary students along the same path of church service that he chose.

—The Keuper Family

It is an honor to receive this robe. My time at SFTS has been three and a half of the most growth-filled years of my life. Circumstances at the school, in the community, and in the world have provided a breadth of hardship, but out of it birthed a multitude of opportunities for applied ministry.

How different the world must be now compared to 1954 when Rev. Keuper attended SFTS. I picture a thriving seminary, set in a sparse town surrounded by redwoods. I wonder about the hard issues they tackled back then, still somewhat fresh from World War II. Everyone probably knew someone who went to war. They were living in a time when life had begun to teem, children were being born, men were home and re-entering the workforce. With the physical war behind them, it was time to deal with the mental repercussions and ask the hard questions about God. Where did God fit into the horrors of the war? How did the Gospel speak to its atrocities? The expansion of the seminary during this time, and the expansion of mainline churches across the U.S. in the 1950s, was a testament to how people clung to God to seek comfort after tragedy.

SFTS was a welcoming institution for women; therefore I imagine the conversations around the role of women were always progressive as students at the seminary discussed tensions between men coming home from the war and taking back jobs usually considered suited for men that women had been doing during the war. The discussions around Gospel stories, and how Jesus spoke to these issues, must have been as transformative then as they are now.

I think of Rev. Keuper’s time at the seminary as I reflect back on my own experience. There are so many threads that connect us. As we experience a time of extreme polarization, police brutality, systemic racism, and our treatment of the poor, we are faced with the same hard questions about God. We are seeing how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go to become a people reflected in the kingdom of heaven. The students attending seminaries across the U.S. are clinging onto God to guide us through current tragedies, looking to Jesus for answers on how to live through these times.

Receiving this robe in the midst of a pandemic is a profound gesture. It is a reminder of how far I have come to be worthy of such a gift. It is a testament bestowed upon me that others see me worthy to own and wear a pastor’s uniform. It is with great humility that I receive this wonderful gift. When I wear it in future churches that I serve, I will bring Rev. Keuper’s charisma and wisdom with me, and I will be wrapped in his love for God.

This robe is a reminder that there is still purpose and relevancy in the scriptures. It is proof that people are still searching for God and craving the kingdom of which Jesus spoke. I believe all clergy at times live in doubt. They wonder if their work has purpose, if anyone is listening, if Christianity has become futile. However, I would like the Keuper family to know that a gift such as this is an act of God, a message that I needed to hear to again affirm my calling—thank you.

—Heather Johnston ’20 (M.Div.)

To make a gift in support of the Graduate School of Theology, home of San Francisco Theological Seminary, visit www.redlands.edu/supportgst or call Director of Development Molly Widdicombe at 415-451-2805.