Jimmie Keel, who served as Hillsborough County’s first Black social worker and rose to become assistant county administrator, died Saturday, April 16. He was 83.
The news was announced during Sunday’s Easter service at Mount Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church in Clearwater, where Keel had been a pastor.
Keel retired in 2001 after 35 years of government service. That year the Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library opened at 2902 W Bearss Ave.
He noted then the significance of the county choosing to name one of its libraries after a Black person. Because of segregation, Keel hadn’t been allowed to use libraries when he was growing up in Jackson County in rural Florida — a point of deep pain and frustration for the avid reader.
“I would read advertisements and nutritional stickers on canned goods and comic books — anything I could read,” he told the Tampa Tribune in a 2001 article marking his retirement.
Keel graduated summa cum laude from Bethune-Cookman University, Florida’s private historically black university, and served in the Army for three years before coming to Tampa. His career in county government began in 1965, a year after the Civil Rights Act passed.
He rose to become assistant county administrator in 1991 and was put in charge of the county’s administrative division, including the personnel, equal employment opportunity, facilities, purchasing and citizens assistance departments. Later, he oversaw human services, which included animal services, libraries and other departments.
“Mr. Keel was an advocate for the employees. He was just a great all-around leader in county government,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers, who worked in the county for 25 years before retiring and running for elected office. “He was a gentle giant.”
County workers frequently sought out Keel for counseling and conversation about workplace or personal experiences, she said, because “he had a genuine concern for the employees.” That came across, too, she said, in his love for social service work.
“He always made sure people, underserved people, anyone in the community that needed service from Hillsborough County government, he would make it happen,” Myers said.
In 1988, Keel and three other county employees created the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Scholarship Fund to honor the civil rights leader and help local students pursue a college education. The group’s first fundraiser was raffling off a color television. According to the scholarship’s website, it has given more than $600,000 to students over the years.
He became the county’s highest-ranking Black employee in 1991 when then-County Administrator Fred Karl tapped him to become an assistant county administrator. Years earlier, the county had been criticized by a report for failing to put more people of color in management roles.
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Karl commended Keel for his professionalism and empathy in the 2001 Tribune article. His compassion, Karl said, extended especially for those in need of government services, such as older adults and people experiencing poverty.
“We all said when he left there was no one else to fill Jimmie B. Keel’s shoes,” Myers said.
Keel placed deep value on knowledge and wanted to make sure everyone had access to its power.
“To me a library in any community opens up avenues to learning,” he said in 2001. “Knowledge really is power.”
He once told a reporter that he knew firsthand the difference opportunity made and that this drove his work. Growing up in a small community in the Panhandle, he’d seen a new Black high school built in Marianna in the 1950s with hardly enough.
“The chemistry lab had one Bunsen burner,” Keel said in 2001. “For an entire school.”
He also went by Pastor Keel, enjoying a second career as a church leader. He was a longtime pastor at Mount Olive AME, starting in 1979, and served during the church’s centennial celebration in 1996.
“He was a community pastor, that is a powerful word — community pastor. He was known throughout the North Greenwood area (in Clearwater) because he was concerned about the community,” said Joseph Smiley, dean of social and behavioral sciences at St. Petersburg College, and superintendent of Mount Olive AME’s church school. “Pastor Keel thought the church was the one to lead the way when it came to issues faced by the community.”
Willie Felton, a steward at Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg, worked under Keel for the seven years he served as senior pastor there beginning in the early 2000s.
“I just remember the marvelous minister and inspiring preacher he was. Just a man of the people. He was a servant leader and also quite an administrator,” Felton said.
Keel guided the congregation through a major renovation of its physical church building constructed in 1922. Following his assignment in St. Petersburg, Keel departed to serve as presiding elder in Jacksonville, essentially serving as the chief administrator for all African Methodist Episcopal churches for the Jacksonville district.
His goal for parishioners, Keel once said, was to make the church and Bible “relevant to the times in which we live.”
“We need to bring things to people that will provide peace, understanding, consideration and kindness.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on April 18 with more information about Jimmie B. Keel.