By Don Ray
I’ll never forget the day I met Katie Keyes — one of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered.
I was new to the Inland Empire last year, and I wanted to know about the history of Perris. It was a Sunday morning, and the Perris Valley Historical Museum that’s housed in the old Santa Fe Train Depot would not open for a few more hours.
I meandered across Fourth Street to look at the old, red-brick, Bank of Perris building. I figured it had to be historical – and I was right. It turns out that it’s now the repository for many of the city’s old records.
A typed sheet of paper in the window referred history-curious folks like me to call Katie Keyes, the president of the Perris Valley Historical Museum. I wrote down the number for her and called. I figured I could leave a message.
But, by golly, she answered.
Yes, she had posted her personal mobile phone number in that window — that would never happen in Los Angeles.
“Sorry to bother you,” I said when she answered, “I want to learn about the history here, but have to be somewhere else when the museum opens. What options do I have?”
Her reply astounded me.
“Why don’t you come by my house, and we can talk?” she said. “Give me 20 minutes to make myself presentable.”
When I arrived at her home in Menifee, she apologized to me.
“I really can’t talk very long. You see, I’m getting ready to have open heart surgery tomorrow or the next day. But come on in!”
Now really, I thought to myself, this is one special woman.
During the hour or so that we talked, I realized that this 81-year-old Perris native not only knew the history — she had watched a big chunk of it happen.
It became clear to me why people consider her the “go-to” person when it comes to local history. If she doesn’t know the answer, she’ll refer you to someone who does.
In our short time together that day, she told me about an incident that triggered her passion for getting involved in sharing and preserving the history of Perris.
Back in the early 1990s, she said, she had been the conservator for her husband’s elderly aunt, and that the woman’s attorney had come to Perris for the first time.
“She told me Perris was the ugliest town she’d ever seen,” Katie said, “and I cried!”
At the next city council meeting, Katie says she stood up and told the members about the attorney’s remarks, and how it had made her cry. She told them that now was time for them to get serious about preserving the landmarks in Perris.
Soon, she said, an awakened city council began supporting restoration efforts.
Ever since she’s been one of a group of dedicated volunteers who are carrying out that mission.
Oh, Katie’s surgery went well, and she wants everyone to know that she has fully recovered — and she wants to thank everyone for their prayers and their support.
Ironically, there are just as many people, it seems, who want to thank Katie Keyes — people from all walks of life — people who have, themselves, been on the receiving end of her altruistic passion for helping those in need.
“She’s a very generous person — sometimes too generous,” her friend and fellow history volunteer Midgie Parker says. “She’s just a very caring person who wants to help other people. And if there is a person that is in need around her, she becomes their friend.
“She takes them sort of under her wing and helps them really for a long time — until they have moved on in their life, or passed away,” Parker said. ”And then she finds somebody else.
“I don’t think she really can be without anybody that she isn’t helping in some way,” Parker says.
Cindy Chambers says she encountered Katie at a time when she was in need — it was more than a decade ago. Her husband had passed away and she had been ill, so she says she moved to Perris from Dana Point to regroup and downsize her life.
She met Katie when she was volunteering with the Perris Valley Historical Society, Chambers said.
“I had just had a run bad of luck, and Katie was always there for me to try to help me rebuild my life.”
Katie remembers that Cindy Chambers was broke and she was sick.
“Some days she could hardly get out of bed,” Katie said. “And she wasn’t quite ready for Social Security yet.”
The historical society had recently learned that it would be receiving a local historical landmark, the Hook House, as a gift, but because it would require restoration, they needed someone to occupy it in the meantime.
“So, we put Cindy in there for two or three years,” Katie said.
“Katie was extremely instrumental in making that happen,” Chambers said.
Katie also helped Chambers with her bills until she could qualify for Social Security benefits.
“And every second, every bad turn,” Chambers said, “there was always Katie standing there with a smile — and being upbeat and positive.”
“You know,” Katie says, “if she needs some help, I help her. Because what’s she going to do?
“I don’t want her to die.”
“She just doesn’t believe in walking away from somebody that needs help,” Chambers said.
“Katie took care of her husband’s aunt,” Midgie Parker said. “Katie was in charge of her money. And so, Katie was the one who was taking her to the doctor and such. That went on for years and years until the aunt passed away.”
Katie takes it all in stride. She says it’s natural to help people if you have the right spirit.
“If you’re a happy person inside,” Katie says, “you’re going to be a happy person for other people. And you have to try to. And I know, a lot of people are going through terrible things.”
When she recovered from her surgery and got her strength back, Katie arranged for me to meet other volunteers who, she says, did even more work than she did in the long process of restoring the old Perris Depot and turning it into the Perris Valley Historical Museum.
Stay tuned. Next week, I’ll spotlight those volunteers — and the remarkable steps they took to make it happen.
A proud Vietnam Veteran, Don Ray is also a six-decade veteran multimedia reporter, writer, editor and producer for scores of print and visual media outlets. He as reported from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, and trained journalists in emerging nations across Africa and Europe. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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