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Obituary: Keith Monley, 1949-2024

Vermont builder and copy editor’s later years were filled with hiking and letter writing

Published June 13, 2024 at 6:00 a.m.
Updated June 13, 2024 at 5:59 p.m.

Keith Monley - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Keith Monley

Keith Calvert Monley, 74, died at home on June 11, 2024, as a result of advanced pancreatic cancer. By his side were his wife, Elizabeth; his sons Jan-Karl and Michael; and his dear friend Sue Trainor.

Known far and wide as “Dr. Doom” or “McFate,” Keith was born in Hartford, Conn., to Fred and Emily (Marshall) Monley. With his brother, Marshall, he grew up in Westfield, N.J., where he proved a genius in mathematics, English and defying authority — for instance, by refusing induction into the National Honor Society, which he richly deserved.

He began college in the architecture program at Cornell University, dropped out due to lack of funding, sidestepped the draft and eventually found his way to Vermont, where he did some coursework at Goddard and learned to build houses, most famously with David Sellers of the innovative design/build movement. Eventually he completed his BA in German at the University of Vermont, where he met and collaborated with longtime and stalwart friend, Erhard Mahnke.

Keith had always loved writing, and so in 1977 he enrolled at Columbia University, where he earned an MFA in fiction writing and turned down an opportunity to publish a story in the New Yorker before returning to Vermont to build houses full time. After the housing crash of the 1990s, he picked up the pieces by becoming a freelance copy editor, primarily at Penn State University Press, for whom he worked until his diagnosis.

Keith sired three sons, all of whom survive him and of whom he was very proud: Noah Dranow, with the Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück; Jan-Karl Driscoll, with speech pathologist Karen Driscoll; and Michael Monley, with novelist Elizabeth Inness-Brown. Liz and Keith were married in 1987. Noah and his partner, Priscilla Young, have made a start of continuing the family line with the birth of their twin daughters, Emily and Elizabeth, who were four years old at the time of Keith’s death.

Later in life, Keith’s great loves were hiking and letter writing. Starting in the ’90s, he hiked the Adirondacks and Green Mountains weekly year-round, at first alone and later with hiking partners, notably Nick Floersch and Eric Bishop. In later years, the group that accompanied him grew to include several others, but Eric, who had once been Keith’s carpentry partner, was the most steadfast. Keith was as loyal to him as he was to Keith.

As for letters, Keith carried on prolific correspondence, in later years mainly with Louise but also with his old friends Ezra “Art” Tishman and Ricka “RJ” McNaughton. His letters were known for their erudition, dark humor and linguistic artfulness. For example, from June 3, 2023:

I have never achieved peace of mind through effort. Berryman was wrong when he said, “nothing of any value ever came of anything other than struggle.” Peace of mind is like rain: you may put yourself in the best position possible to encounter it, but it will fall upon you or not as if capriciously. You can will yourself to sit still, but can you ever put yourself into a meditative state? I don’t think so.

In keeping with his love of the woods, Keith had a green burial at Hazen Westview Cemetery just north of South Hero, where he had spent the last 30 years of his life. A party in his honor will be planned when it’s convenient for his friends, for Keith never wanted his death to be a bother. Always kind to his caregivers, he mowed the lawn, did the dishes, cracked wise and hiked almost ‘til the very end. The accompanying photograph was taken on a hike at Niquette Bay State Park just 12 days before he died.

Keith Monley was well loved in his life, will be missed in his death and will surely be remembered by all those whose lives he chose to enter. At last, he is at peace.

Donations in Keith’s name may be made to UVM Home Health & Hospice or any charity of your choice.

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