Gaither Keener ’72 had always wanted to attend law school. He achieved his goal in 1977 when he graduated from the Wake Forest University School of Law. Joining the firm of McElwee Hall McElwee in North Wilkesboro, Keener tried civil and criminal cases in state and federal courts, even arguing a case before the Supreme Court in 1987, the same year he transitioned to Lowe’s as the company’s first in-house attorney. Keener, recipient of WCU’s 2012 Professional Achievement Award, now is chief legal officer of the Fortune 50 retailer and in 2011 was recognized by his peers, as published in Business North Carolina, as the state’s best business lawyer and deserving of an “elite lawyer status.”
But before all that, the self-described “boy from the mountains” had to learn how to think. Keener remembers the day he arrived on WCU’s campus after a five-hour drive from Newton with his brother. “There were no four-lane highways, we went a little bit on the interstate, then a three-lane highway and two-lane highway,” Keener recalled during his acceptance remarks at an October ceremony. “It took forever. I remember getting here – they dumped me off and they left.”
Engaging in a liberal arts education, the young man soon found his way. “The most important thing about being a history major and political science minor at Western was the fact that they taught you how to think,” Keener said. His professors “tried to mold you and your thinking processes. Not telling you what to think, but challenging you on what you thought.”
From Brian Walton, an Englishman, Keener learned the importance of knowing his country’s history. From John Bell, he learned the love of North Carolina history. “Gerald Schwartz and Andrew Baggs made me think through the idea of socialism,” Keener said. And from Curtis Wood, history professor emeritus, Keener learned “the love of common law and the constitutional history of England.”
“I believe that education is the most important thing to bring somebody above their means,” said Keener, who credited his WCU experience with preparing him for law school. In that spirit, Keener and his wife, Beverly Bogle Keener, who live in Mooresville, recently announced their intent to endow a scholarship for education majors who are members of the Honors College, with the first scholarship planned for the 2013-14 academic year. It is the second such gift from the Keeners. In 2010, the couple endowed a scholarship to support one WCU track or cross country runner each year in recognition of the late Terry Helms ’73, a standout runner and Keener’s college roommate and longtime friend.
Raising funds for endowed scholarships to make a university education accessible for capable students is a priority for Chancellor David O. Belcher, who was enthusiastic at news of the gift. Keener is among those who “have taken from Western and given back extraordinarily to this institution,” Belcher said. “What we are experiencing is a real tide of engagement from our community, the community that hosts us, and from the alums and friends of this institution.”