The following article originally appeared in San Antonio Lawyer magazine and is reprinted with permission from San Antonio Lawyer and the San Antonio Bar Association.
By Steve Peirce
Tom Keyser stood on a chair in the gym of his rented townhouse, a rope tied around his neck. He once was a Catholic school kid from Cumberland, Maryland, who had shown such promise as a baseball player that he was drafted in 1967 by the Baltimore Orioles, and now he was a father of three who had lost his marriage and his home, and was about to lose his law license. All he had to do was take one small step and the pain would be over, but he lost his nerve. It was the Summer of 1990.
In the summer of 2014, Tom Keyser is having lunch with me at Mrs. Kitchen’s Soul Food Restaurant and Bakery. Tom’s digging the joyous James Brown song being played in the background. “I feel good,” he says (Tom, not James), “except for a little pain in my back from hoisting grandkids.” Tom is a music lover, and he wants to tell me about the inspirational songs he’s chosen to play at the installation bar gala, where he will be honored as the 2014 San Antonio Bar Association President. “Mike and the Mechanics have a great song called ‘The Living Years,’ about spending time with the ones you love before they die. Give it a listen,” he says.
It’s another late morning for Tom Keyser. He feels his way around the house. The electricity has been cut off. He sneaks out to his neighbor’s yard and steals the Sunday newspaper, hoping to win the loteria and wingo games the paper used to have in the 1980s and 1990s. No luck today. Since his water has also been cut off, Tom takes his neighbor’s garden hose and uses it to give himself a shower in the yard. He’s got no car, so he rides his son’s bicycle to the Exxon station to pick up a quart of Mickey’s malt liquor for breakfast. Sunday morning is coming down.
“How about a refill of your water, Mr. Tom?” the waitress at Mrs. Kitchen’s asks.
“Sure, and my friend here will have some more Kool-Aid,” says Tom. (Actually, I’m drinking “the hook,” which is a mix of lemonade and cherry Kool-Aid.) Tom doesn’t put anything exotic in his body any more, even if it’s just a sugary East Side concoction. “I’d really like to get membership up,” Tom says. “Did you know that we have 6,000 lawyers in Bexar County and only about 3,000 are SABA members? We’ve got forty judges that aren’t even SABA members. Lawyers ask me what SABA can do for them, and I ask them what they can do for SABA.” Coming from someone else, this might seem like a meaningless platitude, an arrow from a quiver of stock phrases that one might whip out for an interview. Coming from Tom Keyser, and knowing who he is, it sounds almost as moving as when JFK spoke similar words.
It’s 1982, and Tom Keyser is playing softball for San Antonio Blue. Life is good. Tom’s making good money working for Oliver Heard’s law firm. Tom’s married to his college sweetheart, Harriet. He’s got three beautiful children, a home in Oak Hills, and a Porsche in the driveway. San Antonio Blue is a hard-partying group with lots to celebrate, being on their way to what would be nine consecutive state championships. The Blues Brothers are popular at the time, and Tom’s teammates wager him $500 that he won’t dress up as Jake Blues (John Belushi’s character) and dance with Spurs super-fan Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine at the next Spurs game. So the bet’s on. On the way to the game, after a few drinks and some pot smoking, Gene offers Tom some cocaine. Tom snorts cocaine for the first time. He’s 35. People tell Tom that his “Soul Man” choreography is spot-on, and he wins the bet. Tom might have looked like he was on a mission from God, but his descent into Hell was just getting started. He got addicted to cocaine.
It would be hard to picture 67-year old Tom Keyser dancing wildly at a Spurs game today. Not because he’s not physically able. Far from it, Tom is still playing baseball in the men’s senior league (he would play catcher the next Sunday afternoon game in the 98-degree heat). Today you see a humble, soft-spoken, sober man who exudes sincerity. He’s wrinkled, even more, weathered, in part because of his time in the sun playing baseball, but maybe in larger part from the repeated ass-kickings he took in the 1980s, when he threw it all away. “There’s a great song by Phil Collins, called ‘Another Day in Paradise,’ about the homeless,” he says. “You should listen to it. I want the bar association to try to do more for the homeless.” Tom’s not just blowing smoke; but for the help of others and his own resolve, he would be among their ranks today, if not dead.
In 1989, Tom Keyser looked toward the gulf from the beach in Port Aransas. After a long night of partying, he’d left the Porsche out on the beach too close to the water, and the high tide had gotten it. A $20,000 vehicle, just ruined. A minor loss, compared to some of the others. In 1984, he was arrested for possession of cocaine. He was sentenced by Judge Tom Rickoff to community service: build a baseball park at Old Blanco Park, which he did. Judge Rickoff also told him to get help, which he didn’t. Instead, Tom decided that the thing to do was kick the cocaine habit by using crystal meth instead, so then the speed addiction took hold. He had previously served on the grievance committee, but after the cocaine arrest, the grievance committee was coming after him. In 1986, Harriet divorced him. In 1988, he filed bankruptcy. Unbeknownst to Tom at the time, because he hadn’t been paying attention, he had over $200,000 in IRS debt out there, gaining penalties and interest every day. Another thing that was yet to come was his arrest on Mother’s Day Weekend in 1990 for passing hot checks, where he was handcuffed by the police while his son Mike watched. Then there would be the suspension of his law license, where he physically handed his bar card and law license over to the clerk of the Texas Supreme Court on March 15, 1991.
“So we’re playing in this men’s senior league World Series game in Phoenix,” Tom says, offering me some cornbread. “And all of a sudden the pitcher on the other team collapses with a heart attack. They have a defibrillator on hand at the ball field, and one of our guys, Earl Smith, is a doctor. Earl uses the defibrillator to save the guy’s life right there. Come to find out that there’s only two defibrillators at the Bexar County Courthouse, one in the District Attorney’s office, and one in the Sheriff’s office, hardly accessible to everyone.” So Tom goes on a quest to put defibrillators in the courthouse, and raises $15,000 for eight defibrillators. “Maybe we can save someone’s life,” he says, enjoying another bite of meat loaf. Marvin Gaye sings, “I ain’t got time to discuss the weather, or how long it’s gonna last.”
There were other preparations for an early death during that lost decade. The deer rifle and the shotgun stayed loaded and were often pointed where they shouldn’t be, but it looked like Tom was going to opt for the slow suicide of so many drug addicts. But Tom got a call from an old friend, whom he refers to as an angel, a personal Clarence Oddbody, who invited him for coffee and a trip to Club 12, a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. Tom found a lot of laughter and caring at the meeting, with the plea to “keep coming back.” With the help of his sister, who gave him a place to stay and loaned him a car to go to the meetings, he kept coming back. Tom’s been sober since November 11, 1990.
Now I’m trying to sit still during ‘Hollywood Swingin’ ’ and finish my macaroni and cheese, and Tom lays it on me. “You gotta get outside yourself.” He thinks hard about what he’s about to say, bowing his head and squinting (there’s that sincerity again). “What I mean is, if we do something for our brothers and sisters, either inside the bar or outside in the community, it will make us better. Sometimes we get too wrapped up in ourselves. You know that law school applications are down 37%? We’re a chosen profession, and we can make a difference. There’s a dozen sections in SABA, and another half-dozen other local bar associations. Find a way to get involved.”
Of course, life isn’t as simple as just getting sober and living happily ever after. Six months into his sobriety, Tom finds out about the IRS debt, and he’s still suspended from practicing law. These problems paled in comparison to the broken relationships that needed healing. But he stayed the course, kept going to the meetings, and started taking care of business. He completed an offer in compromise with the tax man, and repaid friends, family, and business associates another $100,000. He regained his law license, and was even re-appointed to the grievance committee. In 1994, he started playing baseball again. He repaired his relationship with Harriet and his now-adult kids, attending their graduation ceremonies, weddings, and swearing his son Shane into the law profession. In 2002, he got married again, to Constance Lindsey. This summer, he took his entire extended and blended family, fifteen in all, to San Diego, where they enjoyed a Padres game together. He speaks to young lawyers and law students about career killers. In 2009, he and a friend, Tim Langanke, produced a mini-documentary called Tom’s Story, detailing his addiction problems and his road back to sobriety, which is shown in continuing education and to anyone else it can inspire. He practices family law and criminal law, and uses his personal experiences in both to counsel clients. It’s not recommended as a marketing tool, but some clients have sought him out because he’s been there, too.
Tom Keyser carries a lot of darkness on his back, more than you know from this article, and he carries it with dignity. He can’t save the world, but that won’t stop him from trying to do whatever he can. He’s in the living years, and when you’ve been in the dying years, there’s still a lot left to do. Let’s hope he hits a home run.