By Kyla Hurt
Photos/Submitted to The Source
It was August 15, 1982. He recalls the date. Forrest Keaton joined the ranks at Rammelkamp Bradney in Jacksonville. Now, just a bit more than a week ago on June 30, having earned it, he has retired.
Forrest Gene Keaton grew up in Southern Illinois in the then-populated 900-person village of Valmeyer. After high school, he graduated summa cum laude from Bradley University in Peoria in 1974 and was commissioned in the Air Force through the ROTC program. Keaton took an educational delay to go to law school, however, and graduated in 1977 with his juris doctor degree cum laude at the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign.
“From probably the time I was in junior high or in high school, I kind of thought that’s what I wanted to do … to go to law school … There were a couple of attorneys in the local area … who I didn’t know personally but they’d always been spoken of highly and I thought maybe that’s something I should try to emulate.”
After finishing law school, Keaton went on active duty with the Air Force for five years, spending the first two years at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi. Keaton says, “I was serving as a judge advocate, which is military parlance for attorney and then was transferred to Torrejón Air Base in Spain where I served three more years until I left active duty … and in that interim, at Columbus, I met my future wife, Helen [DeSpain].”
In Torrejón, Keaton was the deputy staff judge advocate of the 401st Fighter Wing.
Keaton explains, “I had planned to leave active duty, so in February of 1977, I came back to the states and interviewed at a couple of locations that were looking for an associate attorney, one of which was here [Rammelkamp Bradney] and was offered the position here and have been here for the last 38 plus years.”
“Growing up in a small town, I had no desire to be in the Chicago suburbs and commute every day … that’s just not what I was looking for. I was looking for a smaller city.”
At the time that Keaton came back to interview, his wife was waiting in Spain and close to five months pregnant with their first child. Forrest Keaton returned to his wife in Europe and told her he thought he would take the job in Jacksonville. Now, as the DeSpain family comes from Kentucky, Helen Keaton saw Central Illinois and thought of cornfields. Forrest Keaton maintains that her first question was if there were any trees in Jacksonville. “I told her, ‘Yes, there is the town tree. It’s on the public square and every Arbor Day, they gather around it and they recite Joyce Kilmer’s poem, and they go home having seen the tree,’” entertains Forrest Keaton.
“And I think she believed me for a couple of days,” says Keaton amusingly.
He continues, “That’s how we ended up here … she’ll want me to tell you the other part of the story. Our daughter, Lindsay, was born July 10. We left Spain on July 28 … flew to New York … somehow, we took a bus … from JFK [John F. Kennedy International Airport] with me, Helen and our 18-day-old daughter to … New Jersey where we had shipped our orange Volkswagen Beetle that we had driven in Spain, loaded everything that we had brought into it … drove to McGuire Air Force Base … I out-processed from the Air Force, and we proceeded to drive cross-country to Kentucky first, in late July and early August, in the unairconditioned Volkswagen Beetle with our 18- or 19-day-old daughter. We then came on to Illinois.”
The firm had arranged for them to stay at the temporarily vacant home on Parnassus Place and next door, 1235 Parnassus, happened to be for sale. They spent their first 13 years in Jacksonville at that home.
Forrest and Helen Keaton have three children. Helen Lindsay [Keaton] Jones was born in 1982, Charles Grant Keaton in December of 1986 and Forrest Scott Keaton in 1990. Fun fact: each is accomplished and goes by their middle name (Mom and Dad’s choice).
Lindsay is an 8th grade teacher living in Austin, Texas, with her husband; Grant is the CEO of a startup cybersecurity company, living in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife; and Scott is unmarried, working for the National Basketball Association in Shanghai, China, (appropriately as a 6’5” left-handed man with a 100-mph tennis serve).
Keaton heard about the job opportunity with Rammelkamp Bradney from a University of Illinois placement newsletter he had received while in Spain. He explains why he ultimately accepted their offer, “It seemed to be a right fit for me. As I said, I didn’t want to commute … It just seemed like the right size city and a fit for me.”
On August 15, 1982, Forrest Keaton started his practice, uncommonly jumping right into a murder case as the only public defender at the time had stepped back claiming a conflict of interest. Back then, even a criminal case could be handed off to an associate. Keaton was that associate. He chuckles, “That was my introduction to trying a case to jury in Morgan County … baptism by fire.”
During his time at Rammelkamp Bradney, Keaton concentrated in corporate, utility cooperative and insurance law. “Initially, most of my practice would have been with Bob Bradney and Larry Kuster, in particular. I did a lot of litigation and insurance defense work, in which they were very much involved, so I learned from practicing with them,” he says. That type of work took up the better part of 20 to 25 years, thinks Keaton.
Ted Rammelkamp, Sr., had done work with several electric cooperatives and as he was moving into an of counsel position, Keaton recalls, “I think it was late in 1985 when he grabbed me … and said, ‘You know, I think you ought to help with some of the electric cooperatives,’ because he was getting ready to phase out.”
Keaton continued with litigation but notes that for the last of his time at Rammelkamp, that was the principal area of his practice.
Keaton remembers, “All through this time, although I left active duty in the Air Force, I served in the Air Force Reserve for another 28 years after I got here.” Judge advocate, United States Air Force Reserve, and assistant counsel for United States Transportation Command were among his several assignments.
He continues, “Then … (I) went on to serve at Headquarters Air Force in Washington and showed up for my first day of duty on September the 10th, 2001 … and our office was about a mile away from the Pentagon, but I was in the Pentagon on 10th. I was not in the Pentagon on the 11th … for what that’s worth … I went there for the first day on the 10th about 9:30 that morning … next morning about 9:30 or so, a plane flies into the Pentagon.”
Keaton retired from the Air Force Reserve in 2007.
Outside of the firm, he served as Passavant Area Hospital Chairman of the Board and as a board member. Mayor Helen Foreman appointed him to Fair Housing Board, and he is a current board member of the Jacksonville Public Library, a role he’s had for about 15 years.
Forrest Keaton retired from his partnership with Rammelkamp Bradney on June 30 of this year, a month and a half shy of four decades. The biggest change he has seen over the years is the move away from 5¼-inch truly floppy disks and notes that “Apple ][ computers were a new thing.” He smiles.
Keaton says of post-retirement, “Hopefully I’ll have more flexibility in terms of visiting our children who are spread a little bit to the winds of the world. We hope to travel a little bit more.”
He has been an active member of the local Kiwanis Club for 30 years and wishes to become involved in their monitoring and partnership program with North Elementary School once it starts again.
“Helen would say, and I probably want to make sure this is in there, that I’ll do whatever she wants to do,” laughs Keaton.
Keaton was excited about retirement, but admits, “It’s with some misgivings, you know. When you do something for so long, 43 years between the Air Force active duty and practice here, … it it’s hard to walk away. But, the writer of Ecclesiastes was right, ‘For everything, there is a season.’ I’ve been fortunate in having good family, good friends and good clients.”