This past Wednesday afternoon, 83-year-old Keith Livens met with Potosi Schools District Administrator Ron Saari and handed over a check for his pledge of $400,000 to go towards creating a 245-seat auditorium within the Potosi Schools complex. It will be part of what will be a rebuilding project that will upgrade the school’s existing infrastructure, lead to a new secured entrance, and allow for upgrades to bring the building into the 21st Century.
Livens, only regret? That he was not providing the check on Tuesday, April 7, which was his dad’s, Eugene, birthday.
That day he did spend talking extensively about the project he has been lobbying for the past decade to see become reality, and about why Potosi meant so much to him that he would give the community such a gift.
A decade ago Livens approached the school with the idea of donating money to have an auditorium added to the school. Livens said that he knows that smaller schools can see deficiencies in the fine arts, with plays, concerts, and other arts presentations needing to take place in a gymnasium or cafeteria.
“I have yet to see a gym with good acoustics,” Keith quipped, adding he did not want to see a production with the air filled with a previously served lunch.
He also was concerned about his fellow seniors, having to sit up in bleachers, both for comfort, as well as for getting out in case of a fire.
Livens also said the idea of an auditorium is that it is something that could not be taken away, as brick and steel cannot be moved. “You don’t lose something like that because it stays part of the community.”
Meaning behind pledge
Livens noted that the idea of giving back came from his late wife, Patricia, who donated a similar amount to the Divine Mercy Church of South Milwaukee to help create a business office for the Catholic school.
“I just thought we didn’t have children, and that would be a nice legacy for me being raised there,” Livens said.
While many decades removed from living in Potosi, Livens shows great energy when talking about his hometown, and how much it had an influence in his life when he was growing up and since he left.
On actuality, his pledge for the auditorium is not the first time Livens has attempted to help the school.
The first time, Keith recalls, was when he was in high school. For the first two years, Livens went to St. Andrews in Tennyson, but switched for his junior and senior years.
That switch was a tough call for Livens, who at the time had been thinking about joining the priesthood. He could learn Latin at St. Andrews.
But Potosi High School at the time - that building is now apartments - was in distress, as Livens recalls there only being 12 students in the school before he and others transferred, raising enrollment to 55.
“If I hadn’t switched, along with a few others, they would have closed the high school,” Livens recalled.
He noted both schools had limited offerings, but where they excelled at was interaction with teachers. “I felt in both cases, I had a good education because it was close to a one-on-one.”
Growing up in Potosi, Livens remarked about what it was like as a child. There was playing baseball on the Mississippi River. There were the times his teachers would take the class to the ice pond where they would go skating and roast marshmallows.
“It was a great outing,” Livens recalled of one ice pond trip. He quipped he does not envy the modern day teenager, where money and having to drive somewhere else is the way to be entertained. “We did all these things at little-to-no costs.”
That class of 1949 was remembered as the “Odd 13,” Livens remarked. Twelve members of that class were boys, and had been an all-male class until their senior year, when a girl transferred in.
A side fact Keith likes to state is that it isn’t a coincidence that he and former NFL player (and Potosi native) Keith Krepfle share the same first name, as he knew Krepfle’s mother when they were in school together, and she remarked what a nice name he has.
Livens had a partial scholarship to UW-Platteville (the university gave scholarships to the top two students at the time) but still thinking of becoming a priest, Livens deferred his money to class valedictorian Jerry Flesch, and attended Loras College.
After a year at a seminary in St. Louis, Livens eventually found himself at UW-Platteville studying to be a teacher.
Livens thought he was going to be drafted when he graduated from UW-Platteville, but as fate would have it, he was offered a job filling in for an English teacher at Potosi for a semester. Livens remembers that the nervousness of teaching in his hometown added to the fact that he had prepared himself to be drafted, meant those months teaching were a little nerve-wracking.
Finally drafted, Livens spend more than a year as a medical records clerk in Germany, then returned to be a worker on the construction of Potosi Schools 1958 project, which serves as the basis for the current school complex.
Livens said that working on the building was a bit of a blur for him - he did some bricklaying, as well as helped install the roof - but what he remembers the most was he was doing things that his grandfather had done on the project, and that meant so much to him.
You see, Livens’ grandfather, Joseph Ott, was a big influence on Keith, as he lived with Keith’s family growing up. He remembered a man who was always doing something for his community, and who opened a barber shop and jewelry store because there was a need. “He always tried to get the most out of people,” Keith remembered. Livens said that drive to better his community was one of the things that drove him on the auditorium project. “I always look for challenges to help.”
It is probably why that during summers, Livens was always volunteering in some way. He spent many summers in Poland, in Hungary teaching English.
Livens spent his career first teaching in Muscoda, followed by Monroe, ending up at St Francis Public Schools for 24 years.
Letters from home
Since the renewed push for the auditorium project as part of a larger building project, Livens has been in constant contact with the school and the community, watching the progress as plans continue to be drawn up and honed.
Initially thinking the auditorium would need to be a separate building, Livens has poured over the plans that show the facility taking the place of the current high school library, just beyond the cafeteria/commons. Under the proposal, a new secured entry would lead to the commons and auditorium, and would be the main entry point for the school.
Livens wants to make sure that the plans allow for good views in the new auditorium for all that sit inside, and wants to make sure the stage and backstage space are sufficient for productions.
Earlier this year, Livens visited the community and walked through the school.
The visit was something that really inspired Livens about his hometown, and the region. Getting to stay in the Brewery’s cabins, Keith marveled at what he saw with the brewery expansion - he had worked in the bottle house one summer - as well as the neighboring Whispering Bluffs Winery.
Livens went on about how he has become a promoter of the area in the community of South Milwaukee where he now lives, talking about Potosi, Platteville, Galena, Cassville, Lancaster. He revels in how honey from Willow Creek Apiaries is a top seller at the nearby Woodmans Grocery Store.
While Livens has tried to stay in contact, members of the Potosi community have reached out to him with a letter campaign to keep him abreast of the project, as well as what it means to them.
“I was so touched, I cried reading some of them,” Livens said of the letters, which he plans on having at his wake. He said that he could see the same spirit in the community he grew up in still surviving today, with what he was told about what was happening, as well as how many newcomers to the area felt welcomed.
“They are happy raising their families there,” Keith remarked.
He also noted that another recent graduate was taking a love of music inspired in school to learning opera in Europe. “It amazed me.”
Other letters remarked about the details in the project, like padded seats and plenty of legroom in the rows. “These little things, you wouldn’t think people would mention.”
Anxious to see things progress, Livens cannot wait to hopefully see the project begin sometime next spring, and hopes it will mean more students going to his alma mater. “It’s interesting how one thing leads to another.”