Braille Monitor               January 2024

(back) (contents) (next)

An Investment with Huge Returns

by Peggy Chong

Peggy ChongFrom the Editor: When government spends money, the way people feel about it often depends on whether they believe it is an investment or simply money taken from their pocket to benefit the undeserving. Luckily for blind people, most people believe education and vocational rehabilitation to be an investment. Certainly we make this case repeatedly, but what is so interesting about this story is not only the way an investment helped one blind person but in addition what it did to help members of his family, who would live to do wonderful things themselves. Here is the story as it can only be told by Peggy Chong, the Blind History Lady:

In Maryland in the 1880s, the right to an education for blind children was for families who could afford it. The Maryland Institute for the Instruction of the Blind, founded in 1853, was a private school, funded primarily through charities. Parents were expected to pay a tuition of $300 a year per child that covered their education, room, and board during the nine-month school year. Some parents turned to their local communities, family, or friends to help pay for their blind child’s education. Families unable to pay or find sponsors petitioned the Governor of Maryland for a special appropriation granted for only one year at a time.

Oliver KeeneyOliver Keeney, born on November 22, 1876, in Granite, Maryland, was blind from an early age. His father died when Oliver was only four, leaving his mother Nancy with three small children, the youngest only a year old. Although the extended family had lots of land, cash was not available for any extras. Nancy applied under hardship to the Governor of Maryland to send her son to the blind school.

In 1885 Oliver entered the school, now known as the Maryland School for the Blind. He continued each year until he graduated from the academic and then the piano tuning courses in 1897. Oliver’s tuition was approved and paid for by the state of Maryland each year.

After graduation, Oliver worked as a piano tuner on his own. He had a room at 2616 Oak Street in Baltimore that doubled as his office. Oliver placed his piano tuning tools into a bag or later a cart and pulled them behind him as he walked or rode the trolley to his clients.

In 1900 he became a piano tuner for William Knabe & Co. of Baltimore. One year later, he was promoted to head piano tuner, earning a wage of at least $18 a week. This was six times more than he would have earned if he worked at the workshop for the blind.

William Knabe was a well-established piano manufacturer for more than fifty years. The Knabe Company put out over 18,000 pianos a year in 1908. Their facilities in Baltimore included at least seven buildings and about 300,000 square feet of business space. Oliver took great pleasure in being the last employee to work on the pianos before these instruments were shipped to the most famous concert halls in America such as The New York Metropolitan Opera House.

Oliver seemed to live the American dream despite his blindness. Before landing his prestigious position with William Knabe, Oliver played piano for many civic and church events. He advertised for several days in a local paper and on a bulletin board ahead of coming to town. If anyone wanted their piano tuned, they left messages at his contact at a local store. Usually, he already had one job lined up before advertising in a town. In Woodsboro, he regularly tuned for the Lutheran Church, and on Saturday night, they pushed the furniture to the wall and held a dance. Oliver played the piano and usually a fiddler or two accompanied him.

At one of these dances, he met and later married Alverta May Eyler on December 21, 1905. The couple had seven children, beginning with Donald in 1907 and ending with Wilbur in 1926.

Oliver Keeney with his wife and six sons.

Oliver first owned a brick rowhouse in Baltimore. The basement windows were large to bring in the light from the outdoors. Four steps led up from the public walk to the stoop and the entrance to the first floor. His home was larger than many of his friends could afford, just over eleven-hundred square feet, with a basement for a shop where he taught his boys to tune.

He learned to ride a single bike in his youth. About 1919, he purchased a bicycle for two for the family and for his sons to ride in the front to steer. Son Donald was in the front by his early teens, acting as Oliver’s assistant. By 1920, the family owned a touring car that accommodated at least nine people for long motor trips such as a vacation to Niagara Falls in 1922.

The family was very musical. Oliver wrote, arranged, and published several songs. Sons Donald and Theodore became employed as piano tuners like their father by 1924. Donald also worked as a musician and band leader. Oliver’s children were all still living at home in 1924.

In 1926, the Keeney family was changing; some of the children were beginning to leave home. Oliver purchased a more modern home at 4712 Springdale Ave. in Linthicum, a suburb of Baltimore. Theo continued to work with his father as a piano tuner.

The depression hit the music business hard. No one bought pianos or wanted their current piano tuned. The Knabe Co. was shrinking fast. As the last tuner of pianos, one of his last jobs was to tune the piano purchased by the Royal family in England.

Knabe closed its facility in Baltimore and transferred its main offices to New York in 1933. Oliver was offered a position in Chicago, but he was in his late fifties and did not want to leave Baltimore. The family traded their home for a store near Hammonds Ferry and Nursery Road in Glen Burnie in about 1931. Knabe could not provide full-time employment. Alverta ran the store mostly by herself. Oliver bought and raised chickens in the back and sold fresh eggs. He built and repaired the chicken coops while trying to establish a new customer base as an independent piano tuner.

On weekends, the Keeney Orchestra played for their neighbors, asking only for contributions. With the door opened, they used their garage as their stage. Oliver and the children, even young Wilbur, played until everyone was done dancing.

Donald moved back home and needed to find a source of income. He had hated the tuning business when he helped his Dad. But now, Donald thought that he could repair and sell used pianos from his home and asked Oliver where or who might give him or sell him cheap pianos in need of repair. Oliver and Donald soon had more pianos than they or Donald’s wife wanted in the house.

Donald found a store front in Annapolis and opened Keeney’s Music Store. Later he sold musical instruments, sheet music, and music accessories. Additionally, he offered piano tuning. The business added radios and televisions to their inventory in the late 1940s. Donald bought a bigger building in the 1940s. Oliver came down frequently and tuned pianos for Donald’s customers.

One of Oliver’s Annapolis clients was his old paperboy from the days on Payson Street, now the current Governor of Maryland, Theodore R. McKeldon. Governor McKeldon also hired Oliver to entertain on the piano for one of the events at the Governor’s mansion shortly before Oliver’s death on June 13, 1951.

Oliver’s Legacy

Son Donald, born in 1907, learned to tune pianos and worked with his father, beginning by peddling the front of their tandem bike to and from jobs. He joined the Navy and served as a sailor on the USS Reina Mercedes. He was attached to the Navy Hospital in Anne Arundel, Maryland, and was a member of the Naval Academy Band in Annapolis and played the trombone. His son Donald Jr. served in the United States Army during the Korean War. Donald Jr. learned piano tuning from his father, taking over the family business after his father retired. Keeney’s Music Store was sold by Donald Jr. in the 1980s when he wanted to retire. Yet, like his father and grandfather, he continued to tune pianos until his death.

Theodore, born in 1909, learned to tune pianos. He played trumpet in the family band. In his early adult life, he worked with his father on pianos. Theo went into the Army in 1941, serving on several continents for four years. Following the war, Theo was a budget analyst for a few agencies in the Department of Defense, retiring from the Defense Supply Agency in 1976 after thirty-five years of service.

Calvin, born 1912, was an engineer for steel plants in Baltimore. During WWII, Calvin was deferred from military service because his work in the steel industry made him more valuable at home.

Kenneth, born 1915, enlisted in the Army Air Force, serving in the combat service divisions. After the war, he worked as a postman.

Daughter May, born 1918, graduated from high school and married a man in the petroleum industry. She died in an automobile accident on July 6, 1941

Waldo, born 1921, graduated from Glen Burnie High School in 1941. He went to Pennsylvania to work as a mechanic for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Waldo entered the Air Corps in March of 1942. He was looking forward to coming home and working with brother Donald in the Keeney Music Store to repair radios and TVs. Waldo was lost at sea, July 25, 1945, during a B-29 flight near Saipan. He was a technical sergeant with the 864th Bomber Squadron, 49th Bombardment Wing of the US Army Air Force.

Wilbur, born in 1926, attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He came home to Baltimore to live with his widowed mother and taught music in the Baltimore public schools. Later he obtained a Doctorate in Music from the University of Miami. He taught music in the Dade County School System for more than thirty years and played many musical instruments with competence. After his death in 2016, he left several large gifts, one to the Maryland School for the Blind for $250,000 in memory of his father.

Oliver may not have been the wealthiest man in the state, but the education provided to him by the state of Maryland allowed him to become a taxpayer and not a tax recipient. He demonstrated through example to his children that hard work and service made a better citizen. Oliver gave to his country six sons who served in the military and supported the war efforts. Monetarily, his son Wilbur gave back to the school for the blind more than six times the funds spent on Oliver’s education.

Peggy Chong is a 2023 Jacob Bolotin Award Winner. To schedule The Blind History Lady for a presentation for your business, church, or community group, email [email protected]. Purchase a copy of her book, Don Mahoney: Television Star, at its new low price at Don Mahoney: Television Star: Chong, Peggy: 9781098082956: Amazon.com: Books, and please check out my other works at https://www.smashwords.com/books/byseries/24325.

(back) (contents) (next)

Media Share