Junction City — Graduation season brings many bittersweet moments to students and families across the nation as one journey ends and another begins. For one Junction City family, graduation will be particularly poignant this year as it closes an era more than five decades in the making. For 52 consecutive years, the Keating family has had at least one of its members in the St. Francis Xavier Catholic School system. This chapter in both the family’s and school’s history will conclude as Jacob Keating, the youngest son of Jeff and Joan Keating, graduates with the St. Xavier Class of 2019 on May 18. The family matriarch, Marcena, knew the value a Catholic school education could bring to a family as she and her nine siblings grew up attending Catholic school in Tipton. She said her husband Francis had no objections to sending their five children to be educated at St. Francis Xavier. “I knew they’d go to church two times a week and they would have religion classes,” Marcena said.
Additionally, Marcena said she and Francis took comfort in the fact that everyone at the school knew everyone else and that created a small town feel within the Catholic school community. The couple’s oldest daughter Judy began the family’s long history at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School with her enrollment in first grade in 1967. Over the next 17 years, Jeff, Jim, John and Jacki followed.
The Keating children’s time at the school was not limited to their role as students. For John, the school provided the opportunity for his first teaching and coaching job following his graduation from Kansas State University. “I really enjoyed my time there and seeing the school and all the traditions from a different perspective,” John said. That new perspective was in one way very different from that of the teachers John taught alongside. In his new position, he now had his youngest sister, Jacki, lovingly referred to as “Little Keating,” as one of his students. This crossing of personal and professional roles was an interesting situation, but Jacki jokingly explained they had a mutual understanding about their roles. “I told him I would absolutely not call him Mr. Keating,” she said with a laugh. “That would just be too weird. He asked what else I would call him, so I told him I would call him ‘Coach.’ ” “A lot of people thought I would act out in his class,” Jacki recalled, “but I knew if I did, he would just tell Mom!”
“That situation definitely brought us closer,” she added. “It was actually kind of fun having him as a teacher.”
The family marked another milestone during Jacki’s senior year, when her niece joined her in the school system. Becky, the daughter of Jeff and his wife Joan, began kindergarten in the fall of 1995, thus beginning a new generation of Keating students at the school. In the years that followed, Jeff and Joan’s younger four children Lene, Kim, Joshua and Jacob also joined the school’s student body. “Jeff and I both attended Catholic schools growing up, so I knew there was just something special about being surrounded by people of the same faith,” said Joan. “We liked the small classes at St. Xavier and the fact that the kids would get more one-on-one time with their instructors if they needed it.” “I also liked that from kindergarten through 12th grade our kids interacted with each other, so it helped maintain and support our family unit as the younger kids could be there with our older kids,” Jeff added.
While St. Francis Xavier Catholic Schools continue to provide a solid Catholic education to all of its students, the experience of the second generation of Keating children is markedly different than that of their dad, aunts and uncles. The enrollment of the school is now estimated to be about half of what it was in 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Recent graduating classes have had approximately 10 to 15 students compared with the 20 to 30 students per graduating class of decades past. While the first generation of Keating children at St. Francis Xavier were educated by members of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious community, the younger Keating family members have primarily been educated by lay teachers. Smaller, but no less significant, changes over the past five decades include the addition of a school uniform as part of the dress code and the loss of the school’s football team.
Despite the changes marking outward distinctions between the two Keating generations’ time at St. Xavier, the friendships developed at the school, as well as the constancy of family members being nearby, were experiences shared by both generations.
John and Jacki each fondly recall the bond they had with their classmates, particularly those with whom they shared the entire first-grade through senior year journey. Some of those friendships continue to this day. Both, like their brother Jeff, also appreciated the value of having their siblings, and in Jacki’s case, her niece, in the school at the same time. The importance of that continued tradition is not lost on Jeff’s children who have also benefitted from having siblings in the same school. “It was pretty nice growing up with siblings in the same school,” said Jacob, “because if I had a question about something like Mass, or homework — something I didn’t want to ask a teacher — I could go to them.” With Jacob’s graduation only days away, the family members have mixed feelings — joy, pride and sadness — about the end of their tradition at the school. “I’m 52, so for my entire life there’s always been a Keating at St. Xavier,” said John. Jacki agreed, adding, “When I was a student there, some of my nieces and nephews were following me through, so I always thought I’d have someone to go back and watch. It’s kind of bittersweet.”
In his seven years as part of the St. Xavier Catholic School community, Shawn Augustine has come to know the Keating family personally and professionally. In his four years as principal of the school, he has seen Kim and Joshua graduate, and soon will see Jacob mark the same milestone. “Overall, I am amazed by just how unique it is to have had so many students from the same family come through this school,” he said.
While the family’s history with the institution is formally concluding, the value they place on Catholic education and their Catholic faith is deeply-rooted and continues to be far-reaching as the elements of faith, community and involvement are interwoven in the fabric of their family, the school and the parish. Jacki’s children attend Catholic school in Topeka; Judy’s children attended St. Francis Xavier prior to moving away from the community; two of Jeff and Joan’s children continued their Catholic education at Benedictine College in Atchison; members of the extended Keating family participate in their local parishes; Becky has dedicated herself to building up the youth programs at St. Francis Xavier; and Jacob plans to continue his participation in the Church with his involvement in the Catholic community at Emporia State University where he will study music education. These are just a few of the myriad ways the two generations continue to build on the foundation laid by Francis and Marcena.
“One of the big, beautiful gifts of being a priest is that while we don’t have families of our own, we are invited in to be part of so many other people’s families,” remarked Father Kyle Berens, Pastor of St. Francis Xavier. “How many multitude of priests have been part of the Keating family over the decades? “Their legacy is a beautiful example of the interplay between the Church and family and what we’re about as Catholics. They’ve shown their dedication to the Catholic faith through multiple generations.”
While hesitant to call his family’s history at the school a legacy, Jeff said, “We hope we’ve been able to show people that Catholic schools have been important to us. We hope they will see it’s important to continue to offer a solid Catholic education to anyone who wants it.
For her part, Marcena, who turned 80-years old in March, is happy that the efforts she and Francis began have yielded such a long-lasting tradition with the St. Francis Xavier parish and school. “You know…I’m just pretty proud of having had a member of our family in this Catholic school for 52 years.”