Robert F. Keeler is a consultant to the Hagedorn Foundation, which focuses on issues such as children and families, immigration, voting rights and civic engagement. Before that, he worked for Newsday for nearly 42 years, including more than 11 years on the editorial board, specializing in editorials about politics and government in Suffolk County, the environment, immigration, religion, and regional transportation. In 2013, Newsday’s editorials on the recovery from Hurricane Sandy—including several that he wrote—were among the finalists for an editorial-writing Pulitzer.
Until July 2001, he covered religion, ethics and values. In 1996, he won the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting, for his series of stories about the day-to-day faith of a Catholic parish, St. Brigid’s in Westbury.
Keeler entered the craft of journalism in 1965 at the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a copy boy and an editorial assistant. Drafted in November 1965, Keeler served for almost three and a half years in the United States Army, including assignments in Maryland as an information officer and in Korea as an intelligence officer.
After he left the service in 1969, Keeler worked at the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, covering civil rights, then at the Staten Island Advance, where he primarily wrote about transportation issues. He came to Newsday in April 1971.
Keeler’s first assignment at Newsday involved covering the Town of Brookhaven, geographically the largest town on Long Island. In that first year on staff, Keeler wrote a two-part series on the problems at the Suffolk State School in Melville, a facility for the developmentally disabled. That same year, he worked on a team covering the bloody uprising at the state prison in Attica. His series on Suffolk State School won the 1972 distinguished community service award of the New York State Publishers Association.
From 1973 to 1978, Keeler was the lead reporter covering Suffolk County government. From 1978 to 1981, he served as Albany bureau chief. In that assignment, he wrote extensively about the state’s prison system, including a strike by prison guards and the first prison interview with David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer.
His experience in political coverage includes races from the town board and county legislature level to the 1974 and 1978 gubernatorial races, the 1976 and 1980 Democratic presidential conventions, and the 1976, 1980 and 1992 campaigns for United States Senate from New York.
After his tour as Albany bureau chief, Keeler served briefly as a national correspondent, then as editor of The Newsday Magazine in 1982 and 1983. In 1984, he became state editor. From 1987 to 1990, he worked on a book about the history of Newsday. The book, Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid, was published in 1990 by William Morrow.
Keeler’s next assignment, after the publication of the Newsday book, involved long-term projects. In that job, his longest-running project was an 18-month examination of the State University of New York. The SUNY series ran in 1992 and won awards from the Education Writers Association, the Society of Silurians and the Long Island Press Club, the local chapter of the journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi.
In June 1993, Keeler began covering the religion beat. Among the stories that he covered were papal visits to Denver in 1993 and to New York in 1995, and the first-ever Holocaust memorial concert at the Vatican in 1994.
The stories that won him the Pulitzer began as a persistent idea in the mind of Assistant Managing Editor Phyllis Singer, who had been trying for some time to get Newsday to run a series on a year in the life of a Catholic parish. That assignment turned out to be a natural for Keeler, who has been a Catholic all his life and once studied for the priesthood at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, a preparatory seminary in Brooklyn.
After a significant amount of reporting to determine which parish would be most suitable as the subject of the series, Keeler began spending much of his time at St. Brigid’s in December 1994. The first piece in the occasional series ran on April 2, 1995. The nomination for the Pulitzer included the first seven pieces on St. Brigid’s, which all appeared in 1995. Later, the entire series became the basis for a 1997 book published by The Crossroad Publishing Company, Parish! The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Story of a Vibrant Catholic Community.
In March 2000, Keeler served on a Newsday team covering the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land. He and his colleague, Paul Moses, wrote a book about that pilgrimage, Days of Intense Emotion: Praying with Pope John Paul II in the Holy Land, published by Resurrection Press in the spring of 2001.
Keeler lives in Stony Brook with his wife, Judith Ann Dempsey Keeler, who teaches in a Catholic elementary school. They have two adult children, Rebekah and Rachel, two granddaughters, Hailey and Annie, and three grandsons: Zachary, Leo and Dayton.