COLUMBIA—Robert Keeder was a teenager in 1960 when a nun took him and his younger brother, David, to a train station for a journey that would change his life.
Their mother had died and their father was unable to care for them, and the boys had aged out of a Catholic orphanage in Michigan. They were on their way to Boys Town, the famous orphanage in Nebraska started by Father Edward J. Flanagan.
After graduating from Boys Town in 1963, his journey of faith led him to South Carolina. He settled in Columbia and has become a fixture in the community, known especially for the huge meals he organizes for the homeless and needy during the holidays and more than 30 years of work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Peter Church.
In July, Keeder returned to Boys Town to be inducted into its Hall of History, an honor that surprised him. Family and friends were there with him, including his brother.
Keeder still has no idea who nominated him for the award.
“I was not expecting it at all,” he said. “The work I do with St. Vincent de Paul is a quiet ministry and I do what I do because I’ve been called to it. When I heard God’s call to work with the poor and homeless, I knew it was something I was going to be committed to for the rest of my life.”
Keeder first thought he might have a vocation to the priesthood. He spent three years studying at the Oratory in Rock Hill, playing the organ for the church and helping people in the community. Keeder and his spiritual adviser eventually decided he could serve God better in the secular world, so he moved to Columbia and took a job with a graphic arts company, where he worked for 32 years.
Keeder joined St. Peter and prayed that God would help him find a way to dedicate his life to others. One Christmas, on the way to Mass, he noticed men and women wandering aimlessly on the downtown streets.
“They looked like their destination was nowhere,” Keeder said. “I asked God to show me what I needed to do to help these people and He directed me. I know what it is like to be without family and I wanted to help others in that situation.”
Keeder’s promise to God that morning has since helped thousands. He works with the First Baptist Church of Columbia and local businesses to hold the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Dinner, which feeds more than 2,000. Keeder and other volunteers from St. Peter have also held a large Christmas Day meal at the church for 31 years, and fed 900 people in 2016.
He organizes monthly meals for the homeless, calls bingo for senior citizens at area nursing homes three days a week, and volunteers at Clean of Heart, providing laundry services for the homeless.
He has also never forgotten the Nebraska orphanage that helped start him on his path of service, and has served on the Boys Town board of directors, including two terms as president.
“I enjoy doing what I do because it helps to show others the love of God,” Keeder said.