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State's longest standing district attorney says goodbye

By Ed Brock

In honor of his nearly three decades as Clayton County's district attorney, Bob Keller's former employees prepared him well for retirement with their final gift to him.

They gave him a golf club. Keller prefers tennis, he said, but his knees don't allow him to play. Not that Keller will have much more time for the game since he'll be going to work for the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia.

As executive counsel, Keller will be responsible for representing the council in the state legislature and assisting other prosecutors in forming policy.

"It's definitely an all day job," Keller said. "They're trying to take advantage of my 27 years of experience."

At Keller's farewell party on Dec. 9 his friends and former employees filled the VIP complex in Clayton County International Park. The guest list included judges, police officers and elected officials.

"I look around at all (Keller's) friends and wonder how he lost the election," said Georgia Senator Terrell Starr. "You just hate to see him go, you hate to lose him, but all good things must come to an end."

The beginning of that good thing was in the small Arkansas town of Monticello where 57-year-old Keller was born. His family later moved to the town of Butler in south Alabama where he spent most of his childhood. He went to Birmingham-Southern College and later Emory Law School in Atlanta where he met Emory Foster, the man who brought Keller to Clayton County.

"He was practicing law in Clayton County and he encouraged me to come to Clayton County because the pace of life was like south Alabama," Keller said.

Attorney George Brown, who was the farewell party's emcee, said he met Keller on the tennis court before Keller came to work at the law firm where Brown and Foster worked. He recalled that there was a sudden surge in the number of clients after Keller joined the firm.

"I don't think they cared if he won or lost their cases, they just wanted to see him," Brown said.

Many of Keller's clients also didn't have the money for their fees, Brown said, so they paid in trade, including barbecued hams for Christmas, a powder-blue leisure suit and a pickup truck that didn't work.

"Bob, he was not about fees. He was about service. He was a good listener and people just wanted to talk to him," Brown said.

In 1977 then District Attorney William Ison was appointed to a newly created third Clayton County Superior Court judgeship. The governor appointed Keller to take his place.

Since that time Keller was re-elected seven times, but in July he lost to incoming District Attorney Jewel Scott.

One of Keller's longest standing opponents in court, criminal defense attorney and president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Lee Sexton, said that after the July election he received a lot of calls from other defense attorneys.

"Every lawyer that called me, and these are defense lawyers, said what are we going to do without Bob Keller," Sexton said.

Richard Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, said Keller was the only person he knew with a wall lined with "District Attorney of the Year" plaques.

"I voted for him every year, and most people did because he was the district attorney of the year most years," Malone said.

Doing the right thing "seems perfectly natural" for Keller, Malone said.

"We promise you ? that we're going to take real good care of him," Malone concluded.

Keller said he's proud of his people and the office he leaves behind. He's especially proud of the fact that during his administration the character and integrity of the office has never been impugned.

And he's also very proud of the fact that Clayton County has such a low percentage of inmates in the county jail awaiting trial. With 37 percent the county is well below the state average of 61 percent and, Keller said, only one other county with a jail population over 300, Hall County, has a lower percentage.

"I'm very proud of that," Keller said.

And he owes it all to having good people.

In one of the final addresses of the evening, Keller's Chief Assistant District Attorney Cliff Sticher, a die-hard University of Georgia "Bulldogs" fan, donned an Auburn University tie and hat in tribute to his old boss. He told the story of going to lunch with Keller at a local restaurant and how after lunch Keller began leaving without paying the bill.

"He said 'Don't worry (the owner) is an old client, this is his fee," Sticher said.

Turning serious, Sticher called Keller his "father confessor" as well as his boss.

"The governor appointed exactly the right guy we needed," Sticher said.

Referring to the deep religious faith that Keller possesses, Sticher said there was one question that defines Keller.

"What would Jesus do and that's Bob Keller," Sticher said.

It was that faith that got him through after his loss in the election, Keller said.

"I was shocked, I was disappointed, I was just about every emotion in the world," Keller said.

So he prayed, Keller said, but received no answer on what to do. Then he went on a family vacation.

"It was one of the best family vacations I ever had," Keller said. "Then I realized that all I lost on July 20 was a job. I didn't lose my character. I didn't lose any of you."