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Retired Lexington County councilmember Bobby Keisler presented the Order of the Palmetto

Red Bank, SC (05/18/2021 Paul Kirby) – Tuesday night, a large crowd of the who’s who of Lexington County politics gathered in the Red Bank area of the county to honor a humble man who served the citizen of that area for many years. They had all gathered to be there when former Lexington County Councilman Bobby Keisler received South Carolina’s highest civilian honor the Order of the Palmetto.

For 18 years, Keisler represented the people of County Council District 5 which includes Red Bank and South Congaree. When he was first elected to serve, he promised voters if elected, he’d see that the South Congaree and Pine Ridge areas of the county got their own branch library. He also committed that Red Bank would have a park of its own where people could enjoy outdoor activities. Through hard work, his ability to form alliances with the right people, and perseverance, both of those goals came to fruition. Still, there’s a great deal more to the story of Bobby Keisler and his public service than these accomplishments. Although his upbringing was sometimes very difficult, through it all he served with a smile on his face doing what he could for whoever asked.

Bobby was raised in the Gilbert area of the county. At a very young age his parents split up and Bobby moved in with his grandmother and aunts. For the remainder of his formative years, they raised Bobby and taught him about life, hard work, and how important it is to help others.

Because of the personnel struggles of Bobby’s family at the time, he dropped out of school in the 8th grade. He said during a recent interview that he wanted everyone to know that because it was a part of who he was. “When I was first approached about running for council, I would tell everyone I only had an 8th grade education. I wanted them to know what they were getting if they elected me. Everyone who I told would say no matter what, they wanted me as I was. That’s when I knew they really wanted me to serve.”

Bobby recently remembered the first job he ever had. Each Sunday morning, he’d walk several miles to Shiloh United Methodist Church and use long wooden matches to light the building’s furnace. For this he was paid $1.00 a week. “That was my money,” Bobby said. “It wasn’t much but it was mine because I had worked for it. I learned pretty quickly that no one was giving me anything. If I wanted anything, I’d have to work hard for it.”

As a teen Bobby worked on farms around Gilbert. He learned to drive farm trucks and tractors and can tell some interesting stories about his time spent doing that. While he was working, he amassed plenty of good old country boy common sense that would eventually lead him to the state’s highest civilian honor.

In 1962, as soon as he was old enough, Bobby was drafted into the military. It was just before the Vietnam Conflict and he served two years active duty, two years in the National Guard, and two years in the Ready Reserve. It was during this service that he met the love of his life Racheal Taylor. After he had completed his service to country, Bobby moved back to Gilbert and on March 12 of 1965, he and Racheal were married.

For several years, Bobby and Racheal rented houses while he worked as a tractor operator in the construction business. At one point he dug footers for Stanley Smith Construction but later turned to digging pipelines. In the late 1960s, Racheal’s father gave the couple several acres of family land off Nazareth Road and they settled down on the old Red Bank Mill property and eventually built a home. Then, they couple began their family.

Eventually Bobby knew he wouldn’t be happy working for someone else his whole life. “I went into debt, bought a backhoe, and started my own business digging footers and doing construction work,” Bobby said. “I got deep in debt and almost went bust but I knew if I could just keep going everything would work out. I went and met my bankers, and we came up with a plan together. Eventually I was able to work my way out of the hole and become successful,” he continued.

Bobby knew Steve Caughman and Harry Harman who owned Caughman and Harman Funeral Home at the time. Harry approached Bobby about opening and closing a few graves for them. At the time, many graves were still being dug by hand, but diggers were getting harder to get and they complained a lot about the hard work. “At first I did a few for Harry and Steve. I charged $75 per grave and in just a little while, I had all the work I could do. When the recession of the late 1970s hit I was okay even when many construction businesses were going under. People could stop building houses, but they couldn’t stop dying,” Bobby chuckled. Now, he gets paid almost 10 times what he did when he first started digging graves. “The business has changed a lot,” Bobby said.

Bobby’s reputation and business grew quickly. At one point he dug for Dunbar, Thompsons, Caughman Harman, Barr Price, and just about every funeral home and cemetery in the Midlands. “I’ve dug graves in Woodridge, Celestial Gardens, Olympia, lots of churches, and just about everywhere else. I worked my way into the nickname Gravedigger sitting behind the controls of a tractor digging one hole at a time.”

In 1969, Bobby and Racheal started their family with the birth of their first daughter Donna. Later they had a son named Jody, and then Rhonda. As his family grew, Bobby invested in some property off Paps Drive closer to I-20. In 1984 they built a home on the property with a nice pond. As his children grew into adults and began their own families, Bobby and Racheal gave each child a lot on their tract so they could live and raise their children off the road they grew up on. It’s since been named “Gravedigger Road” after Bobby. Now, he and Racheal are surrounded by a large family that includes their daughters and sons in law, five grandchildren, and one step-grandchild. Their son Jody passed of cancer several years ago and that was one of the most difficult periods of Bobby and Racheal’s lives.

Bobby isn’t the kind of man that can sit around in his down time doing nothing. He’s always been on the go. “I’ve got this beautiful pond and I don’t even fish in it,” he said recently. “I’m just not the kind of person who hunts, fishes, or does anything else that most men might call a hobby. Instead, I work.”

In order to fill his down time, Bobby became a S.C. State Constable and started assisting local law enforcement agencies in the area. Eventually he attracted the eye of an old friend, Chief Wayne Wilson of the South Congaree Police Department. Chief Wilson liked having someone smart that would work for free to supplement his small department. Eventually, Chief Wilson asked Keisler to become a reserve police officer and he jumped at the chance. For many years he would patrol the South Congaree area enforcing laws and assisting other officers without ever receiving a dime for his time or trouble. It was his way to relax. “I still consider South Congaree my home,” Bobby said. “I love the people and it feels like home.”

South Congaree’s current Police Chief Josh Shumpert rode with Keisler before he was old enough to receive his commission. “Bobby hated doing paperwork,” Chief Shumpert said recently. “I’d ride with him as a young man, do his reports, and he’d buy me a steak dinner. Yep, I ate a lot of free steaks paid for by Bobby Keisler,” Chief Shumpert concluded.

In the late 1990s Mac Toole had defeated Joel Player to claim the District Five seat on Lexington County’s Council. A bit later, Mac ran for an open house seat at the S.C. Statehouse and won. This left his county council seat open, and people began to ask Bobby if he’d run. “I like to joke and tease, and I had said several times before as a joke that I might run. The thing was people didn’t take it as a joke and instead said I really should run. I spoke with my wife about it, and she said she’d have my back, but she wanted nothing to do with the public side of politics. Basically, if I ran and won, she told me she be at home whenever I got there. For 18 years I really sacrificed a lot of time with Racheal while I served on council. Now, it’s her turn to get some attention.”

Bobby always prided himself on keeping his promises. If someone called him with a problem, he’d take off for their house to see the issue firsthand. “People were shocked I was willing to come to their houses,” he said. “No matter what department was involved, I’d call that department’s head and talk with them about it. Then I’d ask that they follow up with the citizen and then call me back to let me know what they had done. Some issues just couldn’t be fixed but when they could, I stayed in touch to make sure the citizen was satisfied.”

Bobby said that he had a lot of great mentors that taught him how to do a good job. “I have always respected Tar Outlaw, Randy Gibson, Bill Stillwell, Robert Spires, Jake Knotts, and others like them who would listen and give me sound advice. These men would bend over backward to help you make something happen and often, that’s the way we’d get something done.” As a case in point, Bobby referred to the recreational facility on Nazareth Road that most locals refer to simply as Keisler’s Park. “Lexington County had the land and Public Works pitted clay out of it. I was able to go to them and get the property donated to the Lexington County Recreation Commission for the park. In return, the Recreation Commission gave the county a piece of land in South Congaree by their horse arena for the branch library. It was horse trading of land and it saved the taxpayers a bunch of money.”

In 2020, Bobby felt it was the right time to bow out of politics. “I’d done everything I’d said I would do, and I owed Racheal a lot. Her health wasn’t so good and after all those years of her taking care of me, it was time for her to get some attention back.”

Now that his time of service is complete, Bobby still isn’t sitting at home much. “I have different groups of friends I eat breakfast with on different mornings. We sit around the table, cut up, tell lies, solve the world’s problems, enjoy the food, and talk about old times. I just can’t make myself slow down too much, it’s not in me,” Keisler said.

He also said he’s still digging graves as a hobby. “I dig in Newberry for one cemetery,” he said as our interview came to an end. “It gives me time to think, and I find sitting on a tractor relaxing.” He’s also helping his grandson dig when things get busy. “Since Jody passed, if things get behind, they’ll call the old man to show them how it’s done.”

Tuesday evening, in front of some of the most influential people in Lexington County, Bobby was still Bobby. He commented on every remark made with a quiet, “I guess that one was alright,” as praises were heaped on him. As Representative Paula Rawl Calhoun read what dignitaries who had been associated with Bobby had to say, you could see a slight shade of red in his cheeks. Still, it was more pride that bashfulness that he displayed when the remarks of South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMasters were read. A portion of those were, “Bobby Keisler has proven his merit in receiving that nomination and this prestigious award. Bobby’s success in the economic development arena is well-noted, but unsurprising considering his perseverance and commitment to hard work.”

Not a bad life for an 8th grade dropout who graduated from the school of hard knocks wouldn’t you say?


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