Elder Von G. Keetch, General Authority Seventy, dies of sudden illness at age 57

Elder Von G. Keetch in Salt Lake City Monday, April 6, 2015. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Von G. Keetch, 57, General Authority Seventy and executive director of the Church’s Public Affairs Department, died Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, following a brief illness.

Remembered as a brilliant legal mind, kind father and defender of religious liberty, Elder Keetch — chief outside counsel to the Church before his call as a General Authority in 2015 — is the husband to Bernice Pymm Keetch, and they are the parents of six children and the grandparents of six, with another grandbaby on the way.

“My dad had this amazing ability to be present wherever he was — and he was a busy man,” said Alyson Keetch Ball, a daughter. “He always had a million different things he was planning and in charge of, whether that was in our home life or whether that was with all of his many roles in the Church — there was always so much going on. But when he was with us as a family he was there. He was never distracted doing something else. He just had a way of being fully in the moment and making that moment feel like it was the most important thing to him.”

Described by his family and colleagues as “a planner,” Ball said her family would often tease their father by saying one of his favorite sayings, “Let’s work backwards.”

“When we take vacations he prints off an itinerary for everybody about the plan of where we are going and what we are doing,” Ball said. “But, he was never rigid in that. He would plan everything out but then be so flexible in that plan. He could roll with the punches and if things didn’t work out it was no big deal.”

Ball said her family, his collegues and others often turned to her father for advice.

“Buying cars, raising kids, Church issues, and testimony — he was the go-to, he was the one that could always give you the best advice but also … help you figure things out on your own,” she said. “He wouldn’t just give you the answers, he would help you figure it out for yourself. … He had a real knack for giving the best advice in the best way.”

Oftentimes that advice came with a little humor, Ball said.

“It’s the perfect amount of sarcasm, wit and goofiness, and never at anybody’s expense,” Ball said. “Except maybe his sons-in-law. But that was all in good fun.”

Elder Keetch was an attentive grandfather, and loved spending time with his six grandchildren.

“He always gives them a horseyback ride out to the car when it is time to leave,” Ball said. “They all line up and take turns jumping on his back and he … gallops around the front yard and takes them out to the car.”

In a 2015 Church News interview, Elder Keetch said the defining moment of his life came as he was completing a judicial clerkship with Justice Antonin Scalia of the United States Supreme Court and preparing to enter full-time law practice.

He could have worked in any city in the United States for a multitude of big law firms. Instead, he and his wife asked the Lord what they should do. After a period of uncertainty and searching, the couple felt directed to return to Salt Lake City, where he went to work for the law firm of Kirton McConkie. He practiced law at Kirton McConkie from 1990 to 2015.

By returning to Utah in 1990, Elder Keetch thought he might be sacrificing his ability to work on cutting-edge legal cases in order to follow the direction of the Spirit and be near family.

Instead, as the chief outside legal counsel for the Church, Elder Keetch argued constitutional issues and supervised precedent-setting cases on religious liberty. He represented almost every major religious denomination in the country.

“We had a close association — it was more than that, he was a kindred spirit,” said Elder Lance B. Wickman, an emeritus General Authority Seventy and head of the Church’s legal council. “I noticed the first time I met him his goodness and decency, he was unassuming and humble and he loved the Lord, he loved his Church. He became my chief lieutenant for overseeing the significant litigation of controversial matters confronting the Church. Not just around the country, but across the world.”

For more than 20 years, the two worked side-by-side in defending religious freedom for both the Church, as well as other denominations of faith.

After listing many of Elder Keetch’s impressive accomplishments — graduating first in his class at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, clerking for two U.S. Supreme Court Chief justices, and numerous job offers from large prestigious law firms around the country — Elder Wickman said it was his colleague’s desire to serve God that stood out the most.

“Von was a brilliant lawyer but he was also a man of Christ, and he was a man of Christ first,” Elder Wickman said. “No one has made a greater contribution to the cause of Zion in the courts than has Von Keetch.”

An impressive part of Elder Keetch’s career was his work as an advocate in the cause of religious liberty.

“Von was highly esteemed, recognized far and wide as an expert on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” Elder Wickman said, “highly regarded as a constitution lawyer, and he represented … most religious denominations. He was recognized by legal academics, he testified before Congress on matters, authored law review articles. … He was respected and admired across the legal profession.”

One experience he will never forget was when the two of them were visiting the Washington D.C. area on Sept. 11, 2001. The pair were only a few blocks away from the Pentagon when a terrorist attack occured. Due to airport closures, the two found a missionary car that wasn’t being used and shared the ride home across the country in a Toyota Corolla.

“We were on the road for 48 hours,” recalled Elder Wickman. “That experience being together in the face of that catastrophic event under sobering circumstances and that long drive across the country was a profound experience for us. We talked deeply about the gospel and this country … and it was a great time of reflection and testimony. In that experience we truly became brothers.”

As a young man, Elder Keetch served in the Germany Dusseldorf Mission, held many leadership positions, and came to love the German people. Elder Keetch graduated from BYU in 1984 in political science and received a law degree from the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU in 1987.

Just after accepting the call to serve as an Area Seventy in the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy, Elder Keetch was diagnosed with cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and five surgeries. “It is hard experiences that teach life lessons about what is important,” he said in 2015.

He also said in 2015 that he has seen, as the chief legal counsel for the Church, how the Lord moves His work forward. “I marvel at the way the Lord puts the pieces in place so His kingdom on earth becomes what He wants it to be. I am grateful to be part of that effort.”

Elder Keetch was born March 17, 1960, in Provo, Utah, to Gary and Deanne Keetch. His parents, wife, six children, two sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren survive him.

Family members said his death appeared to be the result of a recent respiratory infection in his lungs and complications from previous battles with cancer. In 2011, Elder Keetch was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer spread to his left lung necesitating the removal of the lobe. On Jan. 25, his left lung unexpectedly collapsed, leading to his death on Jan. 26.

A funeral is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 2, at 11 a.m. in the Highland East Stake Center located in Highland, Utah, at 4679 W. 11000 North. A public viewing will be held on Feb. 1 from 6 to 8 p.m. and prior to the funeral on Feb. 2, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. After the funeral a graveside service will be held at the Pleasant Grove Cemetery, 500 N. Main, Pleasant Grove.

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