Death of a naturalist: Tom Keefer

Tom Keefer with guardian angel, Patti Sullins, within a week of his unexpected passing. Courtesy of Patti Sullins

BY CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN — Tom Keefer, a unique, well-known personality who lived in Hyattsville for decades, died on Oct. 9, 2016, at age 67. His ashes were laid to rest around the sycamore tree at the Keefer family home at 40th Avenue and Kennedy Street on Nov. 12.  A circle of Hyattsville friends joined hands around the tree singing “Amazing Grace.” Paul Sullins prayed for the repose of Tom’s soul after an unquiet life. This sycamore was a fitting location for the memorial and resting place for Tom, a naturalist who grew up on this Hyattsville corner and had a fascination for all creatures great and small, especially amphibians.

Tom Keefer’s booming, gravelly voice, long hair and beard might have suited him for the stage, and his striking appearance and insistent tone might frighten those who did not know him. His bark was worse than his bite. Tom made his living as a carpenter, and much of his work is in Hyattsville homes and the DC area. I first met him at Christmas time as he was selling holly from another large tree in his front yard. We were in almost constant communication for more than a decade.

There was something of the frontiersman about Tom Keefer, whether he was observing flora and fauna in the Anacostia around Riverdale, collecting ants for E. O. Wilson, hunting snakes in Florida and geckos in Texas, living in the woods in West Virginia, or encountering bears and celebrities wherever. After graduating from Northwestern High School, he studied biology at the University of Maryland and did graduate fieldwork in Texas.

Tom was proud of his descent from great-grandfather Brig. Gen. Douglas Hancock Cooper, who fought with Jefferson Davis in the Mexican-American War in 1846. Cooper also served as federal agent to the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, whom he led as Confederates in Civil War battles in Indian Territory.  

Tom Keefer was an undaunted raconteur about his own life, and most of his stories were probably true. He spoke about dating an actress who later introduced “Annie Hall” to the Woody Allen character. He once found a poisonous snake on the Florida Keys and brought it back to DC in a cooler on the airplane. He may really have dug out Liz Taylor’s car from the sand dunes of North Carolina.

According to his attending physician, Tom was insisting that he was OK when he was “arrested.” Perhaps it is apt that Tom died mid-sentence.

We lost a wonderful storyteller of many unusual experiences with Tom’s passing.

Christopher Griffin has lived in Hyattsville for 33 years, which is 10 years longer than he lived in his native Ireland. He is a retired teacher.