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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Doerner Remembers Keller

Chief Historian John Doerner Remembers Doug Keller

I first met Doug Keller in Nashville Tennessee during an NPS Volunteer Training session in 1990.  We both had a lot in common as I too was physically challenged (partial paraplegia after a 1974 work related 35’ fall) and walked with a cane.  But the real bond that developed between us was our great love of military history, especially the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  We quickly became good friends and hung out the rest of the week touring Nashville together after class, including the Tennessee War Museum on the capital grounds.  We stopped in a local store as Doug wanted to buy a box of Nashville’s famous Nut’N’Goodie candy for his parents.  After our training finished we parted at the airport but stayed in touch over the years.  Doug would either give me a call or I would call him to discuss NPS related business and help one another with questions or interpretive/history related matters.  However, we always managed to talk about the Battle of the Little Bighorn or Pea Ridge.   

Our last conversation was several weeks ago and after discussing NPS business, and you could have heard all the way to Yellowstone National Park as he mentioned his concerted efforts to return the coats of General Samuel Curtis back to Pea Ridge! We also talked briefly about our careers and life in the NPS, and then about our homes and health issues (our mutual aches and pains that catch up to us all as we age).  In closing we talked about life in general and how life itself was often too short and that we both had to live each and every day the best we could.  That is how our conversation ended and we said goodbye to each other. 

Last week I was going through some old administrative history photographs in our museum collection and came across several black and white images of  Doug circa 1980’s in his Custer outfit, complete with buckskin jacket, navy blue piped shirt and wide cream colored hat like Custer’s.  I was going to call Doug the following week to inform him of my discovery.  Last weekend (Saturday evening) at home I was trying to find something special in my DVD collection to watch….for some unknown reason I selected the 1970 film Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George.  For Battle of the Little Bighorn buffs, this film is Hollywood’s classic anti war adventure on the life of Jack Crabb, a 121 year old survivor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (played by Hoffman).  Shortly into the film  Scene 3 came on the big screen  and newly adopted Jack Crabb just saved his Cheyenne friend and string of ponies from a powerful Pawnee warrior.  Later, as Crabb recovered from a slight knife wound, Old Lodge Skins (played by Chief Dan George) gathered the village people around Jack and announced:  This boy is no longer a boy.  He is little in body but his heart is big.  His name will be Little Big Man.” 

As many of you know, that was the nickname Doug received while serving as a volunteer here (at then Custer Battlefield National Monument) in 1982 and as a seasonal ranger the following year until 1988 when he would move on to Bent’s Old Fort NHS as a permanent NPS employee and museum curator.  Then on to his last station at Pea Ridge in 1991, a special place that he loved so much, and what a story to tell, and Doug was a master storyteller and historian! 

I will miss Little Big Man and all the good times we shared.  I know that our Lord took him from us for a reason that only his goodness can explain.  Doug lived each day the best that he could and affected countless peoples lives with his positive outlook on life; his smile; his devotion and dedication to the NPS and our mission; his vast knowledge of Civil War and Indian War history; and his strong love of his father Charles and his mother Becky.   He is at peace now in heaven and is with the angels and all the departed souls.  I will never forget him and know that he is not in pain.  He is not suffering.  He is smiling down at all of us now and is at eternal peace.   I can still see his smile, and hear that familiar voice of his.  And yay, as I gaze out over the rugged hills above the Little Bighorn, with  tear filled eyes, I can see my old friend again walking over this hallowed ground, that battlefield that he loved so dearly;  with that familiar wood cane.    

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