ST. PETERSBURG — For years, anyone passing a group of properties at Ninth Avenue N and Dr. M. L. King Jr. Street likely thought nothing of the man in grubby clothes, working in the yard.
Appearances deceive. That man, Robert Keelean, owned not only those properties but the largest Buick dealer in Pinellas County. Pulling weeds was one of his few "hobbies."
He also threw himself into civic work. He had served as president of both the Rotary Club of St. Petersburg and the Pinellas Park Chamber of Commerce, was deeply involved in the Suncoasters and chaired the Salvation Army's property committee. In 2008, his seven-figure gift led the way to expanding a Salvation Army home for teenagers in crisis.
Mr. Keelean never forgot his roots in a gritty Michigantown, or the effort he exerted to live a better life.
He died April 12, the result of ailments including congestive heart failure. He was 84.
"If you had a community full of Bob Keeleans, you'd have an Eden," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Bob Ulrich. "He made a living in the community, and he gave back to it in spades."
Born in Port Huron, Mich., Mr. Keelean told his family of an incident that left a mark on him.
"His brothers convinced him to jump over a fence and steal some grapes," said son-in-law Bill Doniel, a retired St. Petersburg police division chief. "He got caught."
As punishment, Mr. Keelean had to do community service at a Salvation Army.
After a hitch with the Army during the Korean War, he joined the Buick division of General Motors. He met Margaret Phipps while traveling as a regional representative. They married in 1953.
In 1963, he became the general manager of Faircloth Buick in Tampa, then Royal Buick.
In 1972, Mr. Keelean bought an interest in Adcock Buick in St. Petersburg, and bought it out six years later. In 1984 he moved the dealer from downtown to 9400 U.S. 19 N and changed its name to Keelean Buick.
"If you wanted to talk to Bob, you had to talk Buick," said Doniel, 70. "There was no other car, other than Buick."
He sold the dealership in 1988, in part because he did not want to sell multiple brands. At the time, Keelean Buick was the largest Buick dealership in Pinellas, second in the Tampa Bay area only to Royal Buick.
In retirement, Mr. Keelean stayed involved in civic activities and enjoyed watching Fox News Channel. Evidence of his good works can be found in many places, but especially in the Bob and Margaret Keelean Sallie House, which serves young people in crisis. It is running at full capacity, the Salvation Army said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.