Greg Keeler is a man who defies definition. He is the "fishing poet" of Montana State University, a full professor who turned into a "fool professor," as he puts it. He is a troubadour whose comic lyrics and plays hook audiences, in the fishing parlance that he is so adept at twisting. Some say Keeler is a state treasure. But no one - not even Keeler - can say where his mutant mind will turn next.
One day Keeler's writing a poem about "The Big Two-Fisted River" or a song about "Neoprene Waders." Another day he's painting "Girl with Big, Mad Kitty," his version of a Picasso. He's written a play about trout and songs about hot dogs. Some nights, he stands before a studio audience, strumming his guitar and singing ditties like "Little Bitch Creek" to the tune of "Little Deuce Coupe." It's a Beach Boy-style tribute to one of the most versatile flies he's ever found for fly fishing.
"I think Greg is one of the true lights at Montana State University," said Sara Jayne Steen, head of the English Department. "He is very modest, but his work is recognized nationally. His poetry is published in anthologies used nationwide. His work turns up on PBS. He does songs for national and international documentaries. … He is also an incredibly gifted teacher."
Keeler came to MSU in 1975 and became buddies with the late American novelist Richard Brautigan, who was then a visiting professor at MSU. He brushed with public broadcasting big time when his style and familiar-sounding name came to the attention of Garrison Keillor of "A Prairie Home Companion."
He has written or co-written five plays for the Vigilante Theatre Company. They include "Rewinding Montana," "Aliens and Canadians (his favorite)," "FTV - The Fishing Channel," "WUF!" and "Clark and Lewis." Keeler also co-hosts and performs on "The Mainstreet Show," a radio variety show out of Livingston. His latest CD is "Live from Nowhere," with many of the songs written by or co-written with his friends Ed Dorn, Rich Hall, David McCumber and Mike Devine.
"It's a very big draw if you say 'Greg Keeler,'" said Marla Goodman, bookings and promotion manager for the Vigilante Theatre Company. "Everybody wants to come. That's all over Montana, not just from the Bozeman area."
The father of two sons, Keeler was born in a nest of professors and is married to Judy Keeler, an adjunct professor of English. His only brother is an economics professor at the University of California-Berkeley. His mother was a professor in Family Relations and Child Development at Oklahoma State University-Stillwater. His father was an English professor who wrote poems and essays and enjoyed fishing.
"He didn't have to try to be an influence," Keeler said of his like-minded father who died in 1979. "I just liked to do the stuff he liked to do."
When he's not fishing, Keeler writes about fishing, sings about fishing or paints his neighbor girls fishing.
"Sort of what Greg does is use fishing as a poetic metaphor," Steen observed.
In the spring of 2001, he'll host and teach a nationally advertised seminar at MSU on the topic of fishing literature. With 10 to 15 participants expected the first year, the weekend, full-days seminar is expected to grow and eventually will serve as a fundraiser for the MSU English Department. It will incorporate flyfishing with guest lectures, panels and, of course, plenty of exposure to MSU's fishing poet.
"He's not afraid to use anything to catch fish," said Mike Devine, creator of "The Mainstreet Show" and co-host with Keeler. "He's not a proud fisherman. He just likes to catch fish and he's just out there doing it. … It's in his blood."