Coach Kris Keppel exhibits grace to the end

The impact that Joel “Kris” Kristan Keppel’s life had on those who knew him was exhibited in all sorts of ways last week in Land O’ Lakes.

Keppel, a revered cross-country coach at Land O’ Lakes High, lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Jan. 25.

Coach Kris Keppel was known for motivating athletes to push for excellence, while also being a mentor to help them with other issues in life. (File Photo)

Coach Kris Keppel was known for motivating athletes to push for excellence, while also being a mentor to help them with other issues in life.
(File Photo)

Land O’Lakes High Principal Ric Mellin notified the school’s staff and students with this recorded message:

“It is with a heavy heart that I am calling this evening to inform everyone of the passing of Kris Keppel. I was informed that he passed at 4:32 p.m., this afternoon, while in hospice care.  Kris Keppel spent more than two decades as the coach of the Land O’ Lakes High cross-country team, as the school’s media specialist, and as a teacher.

“Mr. Keppel was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over a year ago. Despite the exhausting treatments, he continued to be a member of our staff and attend as many cross-country practices and meets as he could up until his retirement this past fall. He is survived by daughters Meredith and Morgan, and wife Dar.”

Keppel’s coaching skills were widely known. He coached the boys’ cross-country team to Sunshine Athletic Conference championships in 1986, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014; and District and Regional championships in 2013.

He also was nominated and became a finalist in the Brooks Running Most Inspirational Coaches of the Year competition.

But Keppel’s influence went far beyond helping athletes reach their potential, students, who were coached by Keppel, said in videotapes recorded by the school district after Keppel’s death.

He was more than a coach, they said.

“He was a friend and a mentor,” said Maddie Toth, who ran for him. “You could go to him for anything — from boy trouble to grades.”

After a moment of silence to honor Keppel, which can now be viewed on a YouTube video, Assistant Principal Jeff Morganstein described a man who was “sort of a fixture in our building for over 20 years.”

Keppel was involved and he made a difference, Morganstein said. “These students really are his legacy.”

Members of the Land O’ Lakes cross-country team honored the coach by covering the school marquee with purple construction paper — symbolizing the continuing fight against pancreatic cancer.

They wrote messages on yellow ’Gators, representing the school’s mascot, and posted them on the marquee.

One simple message seemed to convey the collective mood: “I’m going to miss you,” it says.

Hundreds turned out to pay their respects to the coach at his funeral Jan. 31 at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church, in Land O’ Lakes.

The Rev. Ron Aubin presided over the Mass, joined by other priests on the altar.

Aubin spoke of Keppel as a dedicated servant of the church, and as a man he’s known for 21 years.

At the conclusion of the funeral Mass, the Rev. Lynn Nichols — a friend and neighbor of the Keppel family­— delivered a eulogy.

He began at the beginning, describing the man who was born on June 6, 1961 in Indianapolis, Indiana as the youngest son of the Rev. John and Mildred Keppel.

He noted that Keppel was very close to his mother, who was a high school medial specialist — a career path that Keppel would also follow.

He told those gathered that Keppel met his wife, Darlene, on a blind date on Feb. 29, 1984 —forever changing his life.

They went on to have two daughters, Meredith and Morgan.

“Dar said he was a hands-on dad. He’d get up with them (the girls) in the morning and feed them, get them dressed and take them to school. They rode with him to school their entire lives,” Nichols said.

“He believed talk is cheap,” Nichols added.

When the Keppels were married, Darlene was Catholic and he was not. But he told the priest they would raise their children as Catholics and they did, and he later converted to the faith.

“His coaching was how he changed the world,” said Nichols, whose sons ran for Keppel.

“It was his ministry. He built a great team and a legacy at Land O’ Lakes. He used the discipline of cross-country — its training and perseverance and focus — to give direction and aid to kids.

“He went beyond coaching. He provided transportation, bought shoes, provided tutoring, counseled kids through difficult family times, helped them get into college, gave dating advice and shared his faith with them.

“He was also committed to his community,” Nichols added.

He was involved in Rotary and was the Interact sponsor at Land O’ Lakes High for more than a decade. He also took part in events helping Metropolitan Ministries, the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots and the American Cancer Society Relay For Life.

He was an active member of the LifeTeen Band for Our Lady of the Rosary Church for 15 years.

When Keppel asked Nichols to do his eulogy, he wrote a few words that he asked Nichols to share.

“When you find that cancer is a part of your life,” Keppel wrote, “you have the benefit of saying goodbye to friends and family members.

“You get to share special moments …”

“Kris knew he wouldn’t be here for many of Meredith and Morgan’s big days,” Nichols said. So, earlier in the year, he recorded two songs to be played at their weddings.

“One was the song he sung to Darlene at their wedding,” Nichols said.

Published February 4, 2015

 

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