Dr. Rachel Boone Keith – a humble pioneer

Dr. Rachel Boone Keith with Judge Damon Keith and President Bill Clinton

Ten years have passed since my dear mother, Dr. Rachel Boone Keith, went to be with the Lord.  But the lapse of time has not diminished her impact on my life.  I am still learning about what a remarkable lady she was.
This growing appreciation for her is not because she lacked notable achievements, but because she hid them from her family and friends.  A child of medical missionaries, she developed a vibrant faith and preferred honor from God to human praise.  Her rock solid beliefs led her to live out the principles discussed in the Lord’s seminal “Sermon on the Mount.”  There she found that God sees in secret and rewards openly.
This view of God marked her life in every way.  Her frequent alms to the poor?  A secret.  As Christ commanded, her “right hand did not know what her left hand was doing.” Her acts of gladly going “the extra mile” to bless everyone whose life she touched?  A secret that only Christ could fully appreciate.  Her intellectual brilliance? Another secret that she was hard pressed to hide.  Although she was showcased in Boston University’s Hall of Fame in 1949, and later received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, she did not boast of her achievements.  The more wonderful they were, the more closely she guarded them to herself.
It was only after her transition that I found out the esteem she held with her peers at BU’s School of Medicine.  In deep respect, all her male classmates bowed to her when she received her diploma. She would go on to score the highest grade nationally on her medical board exam.
In fact, when she and my father, Judge Damon Keith, were invited to a dinner with Bill and Hillary Clinton at the White House, she was reluctant to don the exquisite genuine pearl necklace that my father had given her.  Typically, she did not want to “show off.”  My father was flabbergasted by her modesty.  He had to use all his negotiating skills to persuade her to wear it.  He reasoned with her that she would never have a more appropriate time for her glamorous jewelry.  Despite her objections, he fortunately prevailed.
But that concession was the exception and not the rule.
My mother’s ingrained humility reflected its centrality in the bible. She knew scriptures such as, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (2 Peter 5:5)
As one of her three daughters, I was blessed to see her live out the wisdom of this verse.  I will always be grateful she rebuked me for being an arrogant, “know-it-all” teenager – a common malady at age 17.  In spite of the years gone by, I still remember her challenge to me: “Debbie, why do you think you’re better than everyone else?”  That question still humbles me and admonishes me not to fight with God, who “opposes the proud.”
Another time she cautioned me not to compare myself with others. This, too, could lead to hubris.  She explained: “There will always be people better than you or worse than you.”  As a result, she urged me to seek to please Christ in my own special way and not worry about competing with others.  That does not mean that she advocated mediocrity.  She always gave her best to God, and taught her children to do the same.
Nearly every Sunday my mother and father would go to church.  But she was the only person I ever knew who took copious notes of the sermon.  She wanted to guide her life by the wisdom contained in the word of God.  At Sunday dinner, she discussed the sermon’s highlights with the family so that we, too, could grow in Christ.  Although she had enough brains to run her own life, she humbly wanted Christ to lead her – and those she loved.
I thought of her recently in meditating on the proverb, “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?  There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 26:12) Not only was she humble in character, but she was also unimpressed with her many accomplishments, including her tenure on the state’s medical board.
For example, when she retired after nearly 50 years of practicing internal medicine, she was adamant against having a retirement party.  “If you have an event for me, I won’t go,” she protested. She cared only about winning approval from Christ and hearing him say to her, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
I know that she received this divine commendation because she received many honors posthumously, as if God was smiling on her life.  The Urban League saluted her as a “Distinguished Warrior,” Wayne State’s School of Nursing honored her for her leadership at the school, Congressman John Conyers entered her passing in the Congressional Record, and symbolically a tree was planted in her honor at the Coretta Scott King forest in Israel.
What a wonderful lady, mother, wife and doctor who lived “under the radar” but whose secrets of service should not be forgotten.

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