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- May 06, 2002
- Vol. 57
- No. 17
Prophet Come Lately
After 34 Years of Anonymity Kent Keith Gets Credit for His Words of Wisdom
"If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway."
"If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway."
When Kent Keith heard those aphorisms almost five years ago in a speech at a Rotary Glub meeting in Waikiki, he was stunned—and deeply moved. Not so much by their wisdom as their attribution: The speaker credited them to Mother Teresa, the unofficial saint of Calcutta. But Keith, 53, an executive of the YMCA of Honolulu, knew the real author: himself.
As a 19-year-old Harvard sophomore in 1967 he had composed 10 proverbs and published them in a booklet. Unbeknownst to Keith, his moral marching orders, which he called "The Paradoxical Commandments," were copied out and passed around, while his authorship was all but forgotten. Quoted by celebrities and politicians and cited on more than 6,000 Web sites, Keith's sayings had been credited to everyone from Mother Teresa to rocker Ted Nugent. In fact, when Keith announced after the meeting that the words were his, the speaker, recalls Keith, "gave me a look that said, 'You poor, delusional megalomaniac' "
Until that day, Keith had no idea that his commandments had taken on a life of their own. But after the publication by Penguin Putnam this week of his book Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments—Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World, he may finally become as famous as his words. With a hefty pressrun of 175,000 and a national publicity tour, his profile has already begun to rise. Nugent, for one, says, "I'd like to buy this man a pineapple soufflé." And Keith is discovering the power of fame. "Suddenly you're in a new kind of lay ministry," he says, recalling that at a recent writers conference, "people came up to me and shared their hopes and dreams."
The road to recognition began in a book-shop, to which he raced after the Rotary meeting. Leafing through Mother Teresa's 1995 bestseller A Simple Path, compiled by author Lucinda Vardey, Keith found his commandments. Vardey had spotted a version of the aphorisms on a wall at the nun's Calcutta orphanage but knew nothing of their origin. "I wanted to laugh, scream, jump up and down," says Keith, who was thrilled that his sayings had inspired one of his heroes. He immediately rang his wife, Elizabeth, a translator who was on assignment in St. Louis. "I was so moved I wanted to cry," says Elizabeth, 46. Adds her husband: "We adopted our three children from orphanages in Japan and Romania. That my words were on the wall as Mother Teresa and her coworkers ministered to children really touched us."
That night he decided to write his own book, which weaves inspirational essays around his original principles. Cookie mogul and YMCA of Honolulu board member Wally "Famous" Amos—who told Keith he had long used the commandments in his speeches without knowing who had written them—put the author in touch with a small Hawaiian company, Inner Ocean Publishing, which printed the book last October. Sensing its hit potential, Penguin Putnam bought the rights in January, paying a reported $300,000.
Keith's commandments grew out of his experience as class president at Roosevelt High School in Honolulu, where he has lived since 1962. (His father, Bruce, now 85, is a retired spokesman for the Marines, and mother Evelyn, now 80, is a homemaker.) Once at Harvard, he found a role advising high school student governments and wrote the maxims for a booklet called The Silent Revolution—Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council. Harvard distributed 10,000 copies nationwide.
While the commandments' following was quietly growing, Keith applied their "just do it" ethos to his own life. After graduating with a government degree in 1970, he traveled to England as a Rhodes Scholar, earning a master's in philosophy and politics from Oxford. He then acquired a law degree from the University of Hawaii in '77 and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Southern California in '96. He and Elizabeth, whom he wed in 1976, share a five-bedroom home with Kristina, 16, Spencer, 12, and Angela, 11.
Keith has been a lawyer, director of Hawaii's Department of Planning and Economic Development, and—from '88 to "95—president of Chaminade University of Honolulu. But he is comfortable knowing that his defining work remains a set of proverbs he wrote 34 years ago. "I still believe," he says, "in every one of them."
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