Paying it Forward
Lawyers are supposed to serve their communities, at least that's what my Daddy taught me. On this Law Day, let us take a glance back at one lawyer, who was a native of Dublin, but left his home here and left a lasting legacy to the State of Florida and northern Florida in particular. Born with a God given talent, Keen paid it forward and lent his skills to promote the enforcement of the law, the improvement of education and the establishment of nuclear energy facilities.
James Velma Keen was born in Dublin, Georgia on August 23, 1899. His parents, James Henry and Ida Keen lived on a farm in Smith's District on the eastern side of the river. Since his father was known as James, James Velma Keen was known by his friends as "Velma." When Velma was an infant, the Keens moved to River Junction in Gadsden County, Florida. James Henry Keen followed the course of his Holmes cousins and moved south to open a Coca Cola bottling plant in 1907. Keen operated the plant until 1913, when it merged with another plant in Marianna. After James Henry's death in 1942, his son Charlton took over as president and manager of the plant. When Charlton died in 1957, Velma found himself in control of his father's business, the Purity Bottling Works.
Velma Keen returned to Georgia where he entered Georgia Tech and later Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. After a brief period of study at the University of Pittsburgh, Keen returned to North Florida and entered Law School at Florida State University. After obtaining a law degree in 1922, Keen was admitted to the bar in 1923 and began the practice of law with the firm of Sawyer, Surrency, Carter and Keen.
From his new home in Sarasota, Keen launched his public service career. He served as the State's Attorney for the 27th Judicial District. In 1930, Keen was chosen as the State Attorney for Sarasota County. After failing in an attempt to become the mayor of Sarasota in 1927, Keen returned to politics and was elected to represent his county in the Florida legislature in 1931. Following his two-years in the state house, Keen once again climbed the ladder to become the Assistant Attorney General of Florida in 1933.
In 1936, Velma Keen returned to private practice in Tallahassee in a general civil practice with the firm of Keen, O'Kelly and Spitz. Keen was often called upon to write articles for the Florida Law Journal and remained active in the State Bar Association, serving as a committee chairman and the organization's president. In 1959, Keen was honored with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Florida State University for nearly four decades of outstanding legal services to the State of Florida.
In 1947, Keen represented the estate of circus magnate John Ringling, who bequeathed his estimable art museum, luxurious mansion and its grand gardens to the people of Florida. Velma Keen's passion was the furtherance and improvement of educational opportunities in his state. He served as a trustee of Florida Southern College. He was president of the Southern Scholarship and Research Foundation and chairman of the Continuing Education Council of Florida.
Velma Keen and his wife helped to found the Southern Scholarship and Research Foundation. The program continues today to provide free housing scholarships. In the early 1960s, Keen was appointed to the State Advisory Committee on Libraries. He was a member of the National Citizens Council for Better Schools, The Advisory Council on Education and a member of the Education Committee of the United States Chamber of Commerce, from 1948 to 1963.
Perhaps Velma Keen's most enduring legacies came in the field of nuclear energy. Just ten years after the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, Keen led his state in the establishment of the atom as a peaceful implement of man. In 1955, Keen was elected to chair the Florida Nuclear Development Commission. The board of citizens was charged with the responsibility of implementation of policies and advisement of nuclear development in the state. Keen and his fellow board members began to recruit math and science teachers who would encourage their students to excel in their studies and remain at home to further the interests of Florida. Eventually the commission promoted the studies of nuclear energy at the Florida State and the University of Florida. His personal goal was to make the state's top two universities among the best in the nation. As a member of the Southeastern Regional Council on nuclear energy, Keen helped to develop policies for the establishment of nuclear power plants and the storage of radioactive waste products.
In 1966, James Velma Keen was honored for his work in the development of nuclear energy. Florida State University named its new physics building the James Velma Keen Physics Research Building in honor of one of the founders of the Southern Interstate Nuclear Compact in 1959. An excellent public speaker, Keen was frequently asked to speak to scientific, business and education groups.
Keen was an astute businessman as well. He was the founding president of the Leon Federal Savings and Loan Association in Tallahassee. The Commonwealth Corporation, a large financial institution, was founded under his leadership. Always asked to serve on many boards, Keen served three terms as President of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce in the late 1940s and as a director of the Florida Chamber of Commerce in 1950s. Velma Keen was also active in historical affairs. He served as vice president of the Florida Historical Society in the mid 1950s.
James Velma Keen died on March 4, 1963. His life was one of untiring public service. Keen represents the qualities of what an ideal attorney at law should be. Those of us who are blessed with a talent to represent others in times of tribulations and triumphs are obligated to share our blessings with others. Of course, everyone else should aspire to those same goals of selflessness and service to others.