Anthony Keene: "I only have one bias"


Photo: Amy Ryan Photography.

"I've been the first in a lot of things in my life," says Village of Roscoe trustee Anthony Keene: first in his immediate family to finish high school, first in his extended family to go to college, first black manager at several companies where he's worked - and first black member of the Village of Roscoe Board of Trustees, since 2019.

Raised on Chicago's Southside, Keene attended St. George Catholic grammar school, where his mother volunteered as teacher’s assistant. Keene got his passion for serving others from her example. His work ethic came from his father who served as a MP (military police) during World War II. Anthony always kept a job and he paid his own tuition to attend De La Salle High School ("one of the top 10 high schools in the city of Chicago") by working as a janitor at the grammar school he had attended and an auto parts employee at a local store.

Keene received an academic scholarship to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb but had to quit school when he discovered his grant for living expenses and books was cancelled. While Anthony was in school, he earned extra money by doing tune-ups and other mechanical work on cars, using skills learned working with his father, a diesel mechanic. A university official who knew him from his tune-up business quickly got him a job as a machinist apprentice at General Electric (GE) in Dekalb. The job lasted nine months before the company went on strike and Keene didn't have enough seniority to get rehired. "I was homeless for a time," he says.

He eventually found himself working a second shift job with another young man from GE, running a huge transfer press that kept breaking down. Using his mechanical skills and the skills he had learned during his time at GE, they kept trying to fix it ("really, we were re-engineering it"): making a change, testing it, and changing it back when their shift was over. Eventually the plant superintendent discovered that the press only ran correctly during second shift, so he asked them what they had done. They demonstrated the changes they made and were recognized by the company. "We both got a little bonus for it and a write-up in the company newsletter," he says.

When Keene’s supervisor was leaving the company, Keene told his manager, "I want the supervisor job." The superintendent thought Keene was crazy, but he eventually got the job, which led to a career in plant operations. Keene started his career in safety after a fire started on day shift and an attempt to put it out found that all the fire extinguishers in that department were empty. Keene had no background in safety, but he soon discovered that the employees had been spraying the carbon dioxide fire extinguishers to cool their beer.

Keene's management career spans 42 years in diverse industries with over 28 years in industrial safety, mostly in the Chicagoland area and North Carolina. His children were born in DeKalb and raised in Elgin. During the 1990s, in his early forties, he received his BA in Management from Judson University while he was Subplant and Safety Manager for SeaquistPerfect Dispensing in Cary, IL. Later he worked in North Carolina for almost ten years, first as Safety Manager for Butterball Turkeys, protecting 2,500 employees in a million-square-foot facility. Then he served as Health Safety and Environmental Division Manager for Valspar's General Industrial Group, responsible for three powder paint facilities, two liquid paint facilities, four specialty paint contracted service, the corporate research & development lab, and the Industrial Sales group.

As a safety professional, Keene obtained awards for safety compliance from a multitude of national organizations, including the U.S. Department of Labor. From 2006 through 2010, Valspar's Charlotte facility recorded only two injuries. The Valspar General Industrial Group was the only division in the Valspar corporation that attained the U.S. Department of Labor VPP certification. He concluded his career in Madison, as a safety, security, and environmental manager for Kraft Foods, before he became an independent environment, health & safety consultant in 2015, moving his consultancy to Roscoe before his retirement in 2017.

Keene looks at safety from a personal perspective. "You have two families, your family at home and your family at work. Would you let your child ride a forklift without a seatbelt? Would you let your child go down into a pit without checking the air quality first? You've got to look out for the people you work with, your family at work." He has always held high expectations for his children and his employees. "Never tell me you can't," he says, "tell me you don't know how.

As a manager, Keene says, "my philosophy was not punishment" but employee engagement. "When people take responsibility for their work, we all can succeed. I only have two hands, and with over forty to sixty employees I can’t be everywhere and see everything. When an employee puts a part into the bin, is it a good part or a bad part? I don't know. I can't control his/her decision. All I can do is hold the person accountable for their decision. The question is why did it happen? Employees need to understand accountability once clear expectations are set for their decisions."

For example, if Keene told an employee to have a part shipped out by 4:00, would the worker do anything more than drop it off at the mailroom? Maybe, maybe not, but what if, as Keene explains, "that part was a sample that would assure the company a $1.4 million contract... dependent on that part being packaged properly and being shipped out by 4:00." Keene notes the difference: the employee was entrusted with something of value which makes the employee’s decision valuable. "With trust comes responsibility and accountability. The communication of expectation and the 'why' it’s important is how you empower people to their best performance."

While we talked over coffee at Sophia's Restaurant about diversity and inclusion, Keene held up a packet of artificial sweetener. "What is this?" he asked. When I said it said "Sweetener," he asked me what color the packet was. I said pink. He then asked me what information was on the packet, so I told him it just said "Artificial Sweetener." He replied in mock insistence, "No, it doesn't," and showed me the other side of the packet, which listed the ingredients. "Were you right?" he asked. "Was I right? We were both right... Peoples' perspective can cause conflict if there is an unwillingness to see both sides of an issue. We just needed to turn around and get the other person's perspective."

"I only have one bias - I don't like a**holes." Keene says. "If somebody's wearing a swastika or a gang sign, I don't have any use for either of them. If someone is causing trouble in my neighborhood by playing their music loud at two in the morning, I don't want them around me either."

Keene observes, "There are two great fallacies of mankind, arrogance and ignorance. Ignorance can be overcome with knowledge and information. It is a lack of knowing that causes this human failing. Arrogance is quite the opposite. Arrogance is the knowledge of what is right, but the person places themselves above his fellow man and sometimes above God." Keene quotes 1 Peter 1:22 on the subject; "Since you have purified your souls by obedience to the truth so that you have a genuine love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from a pure heart."

After Keene retired in 2019, Police Chief Jamie Evans recruited him to run for the Village Board. He also restores classic cars with the help of his daughter ("She's the mechanic in the family"), including a 2009 Mustang, which he takes to local car shows. Keene's home is in Chicory Ridge, by the Rock River. He told his wife that when he retired, he wanted them to settle between two big cities, close enough for shopping and amenities in either direction, on the banks of a creek or a river or a lake. "And in God's provision, that's what we've got."

More News from Roscoe
I'm interested
I disagree with this
This is unverified