EDINBURG — Keith Wiseheart was a traveler — no doubt about it.
“I ran away from home when I was 4 years old,” he said, laughing. “I went down to the railroad and crossed the tracks to see my aunt who worked about two miles away.”
The railroad became a big part of his life in his youth since both his aunt and dad worked for railroads.
“My dad worked for Northwestern from the 1920s to the early 1950s and my aunt for the Milwaukee railroad,” Keith said.
Keith took his traveling spirit and hit the rails, using his dad’s travel benefits.
“I traveled extensively to the four corners of the U.S. by train. Particularly interesting to me was my trip to New York to see the Statue of Liberty and a trip to Los Angeles where I took a boat to Catalina Island where I hunted mountain goat. I didn’t get any,” he added, smiling.
Born in Beaver Dam, Wis., Keith joined the family as the baby behind two older brothers and enjoyed growing up in the town of 10,000. He entered the world with a cleft palate, affecting the bony part of the roof of the mouth causing an opening from the inside of the mouth into the nasal cavity (no hare-lip).
At six months the doctors repaired it, but having his tonsils out at 8 years old undid the correction, and Keith has lived the rest of his life trying to live down the stigma the palate has made him feel. But did that stop him? Not on your life.
In school he was an avid reader, enjoying music and art.
“I took art lessons when I was 5 years old for one year but gave them up because I had to travel about 100 miles to get to the lessons — from Beaver Dam to Milwaukee,” Keith said. “I used to draw in church with a pencil and paper, but I never drew stick figures.”
Taking piano lessons at 12 years old, he won several awards in high school.
“I was able to sit down and play classical music for two hours at a time without a piece of sheet music,” he said with pride.
In a dance band in his teens, he was the pianist, playing big band and ‘40s music. Playing professionally for a short time in a big band, he left that profession when it became obvious his short fingers restricted his playing.
While taking music arranging in college, the Marines drafted him to serve in the Korean War.
“I went to Japan, which I liked very much,” he said. “I was grateful I had the opportunity because Japan is so different than America in the way they think, their tastes, the way they conduct themselves. I loved it because everybody bowed to everybody out of respect. I thought that was terrific.”
Being a Marine also gave him the Esprit de Corps.
“They really train you to believe — Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said. “I had my palate operated on one time, and the nurse asked, ‘Does it hurt?’ I said, ‘No. I am a Marine!’”
A combat photographer in designation he never did see combat.
“I worked in a lab and took pictures of big occasions,” he said, of what became a lifelong hobby.
After the service, Keith decided he’d head for the Art Institute of Chicago, planning on putting himself through school with a job he took as an engineer reading blueprints (he taught himself).
About this time a lady he had known since he was about 11 came back into his life — Pauline.
“I lived in Grand Rapids and he lived in Chicago,” Pauline said. “He kept sending me Christmas Cards but didn’t put any return address on them. I called my dad and said, ‘I need some addresses.’ So, I sent a card to him. Then, about February, he called up and as we were talking, he said, ‘I’d like to come up.’ He came up. That was February. The middle of April we got engaged. The Fourth of July, we got married. That was 51 years ago!”
Deciding Chicago was no place to raise a family, they moved back to Wisconsin. After a few jobs with lots of variety — a baker, a maintenance man, a cabinetmaker — Keith finally joined the U.S. Postal Service. Sorting mail for two years, Keith then took over as the maintenance man — a job he totally hated but it paid the bills and led him back to his painting.
“In 1975 I decided that I would go back to painting like I always wanted to do. It was therapy for me to keep my sanity,” said Keith, thinking of the nowhere job that paid for his home and put food on the table.
For Keith, however, painting wasn’t simply putting brush to canvas. For each painting there is a story. Many of the paintings even start out as a story leading into a painting. His stories can be light and amusing or take you to the depth of the loneliness he has felt from living with a cleft palate and a slurred style of speech.
“It causes lots of problems. I have to be careful swallowing certain foods and drinking liquids. The biggest problem, of course, is people think because I have something wrong with my voice that there is something wrong with my brain,” he said. Because of that he sometimes chooses to stay quiet. Hearing his life’s story, however, no one would ever question his intelligence nor his ability to succeed.
Another part of his paintings are the variety of hands. Many have hands, which he struggles to keep long instead of short and stubby as he sees his fingers.
“I have a fixation with hands,” he said. “One of the things I like best is watching a baby’s hands. What a gift we have in a hand.”
Through the year,s camping became an outlet for the family.
“One time we had a pop-up camper, which I pulled with a Gremlin which had a good motor,” he said, chuckling. “The camper was twice the size of the Gremlin. People would pass us and do a double take.”
Retiring in ‘91, he went to culinary school.
“We were going to do some traveling, and what is the one vocation where you can find jobs? Cooking,” he said, chortling, “because cooks are very volatile and they quit!”
Working locally as a cook until Pauline retired, he took his career on the road.
One summer Keith worked at a resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
“Our daughter lives there so we have to go there. It’s really bad!” said Pauline, with a gale of laughter.
“It was in a big barn, and from the waist up, it was all open. Here I am at this stove, working in the kitchen and looking out at snow-capped mountains. It was really lovely,” he said, with a peaceful grin.
They have finally settled into a park during the summer at Lake Delton, Wis., after traveling all over America and Canada. Winter finds them at Lazy Palms Ranch in Edinburg, where Keith paints the ideas he’s developed during the year.
“I think my art is timeless,” he said, signing his paintings with a broken heart and W.
With his painting, collection of old style cars, keeping in touch with their two children and keeping his connection with his love of 51 years, Keith is facing life with Parkinson’s bravely — becoming a one-handed piano player.
Life’s problems may have slowed him down, but one thing is for sure — they are never going to stop this man. With a brain full of ideas and dreams, life will simply open more doors.