Life sweet for van Keuren
She’s like a character from “Little House on the Prairie,” with refined manner, a warm, sweet smile, petite frame and dainty gestures.
With all of these traits, it’s hard not to feel an inviting comfort when you enter Luise van Keuren’s office at California University of Pennsylvania.
Van Keuren, a Cal U English professor, was born in upstate New York and spent most of her life in Massachusetts and Vermont, perhaps inhaling her love for small-town life there.
She received her bachelor’s degree in English from Emerson College in Boston, her master’s degree from the State University of New York, at Cortland, and her doctorate, with a specialty in American literature, from the University of Delaware in Newark.
After receiving her doctorate, van Keuren taught at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa; the University of Delaware; Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt.; and Juanita College in Huntingdon.
But she spoke most fondly about her experiences at Cal U.
“People who work here are unusually friendly, and very helpful. There is a sense of family among the people who work here, and they are remarkably … supportive,” van Keuren said, her hands neatly clasped in her lap.
“Students are well-mannered, attentive, involved, unusually courteous, and most of all, they’re convinced they need a degree. … Now you don’t find that everywhere,” she continued in her soft-spoken voice.
Many people at Cal U seem to be as fond of van Keuren as she is of them.
Debbie Custer, secretary for the English department, said, “She is the absolute sweetest lady on Earth, and I love working with her. She’s so understanding, very efficient and always listens to others.”
Her students seem to have the same opinion.
Mary Materkowski, a sophomore English literature major in van Keuren’s American Literature II class, emphatically answers when asked if she would take her for another class.
“Definitely! She’s so nice and really seems to care about her students,” she said.
As warmly as van Keuren feels about the people at the university, she seems to share that same sentiment and enthusiasm when it comes to teaching.
“It was a good match,” she said about getting her job at California three years ago. “A step up, a bigger and stronger campus from my previous job.”
Her eyes lit up and her voice grew bolder as she talked about her teaching ethic.
“It’s important to teach things you believe are valuable,” she said. “I always try to pick literature that’s worth reading, not trivial.”
According to van Keuren, “The whole field of communication and language is deeply important to people’s lives. This is a field I’m comfortable in…”
She smiled. “I think I’m in a vital field.”
It would seem her students feel her passion for teaching, too. Materkowski said of van Keuren’s class, “I learn a lot from her class. She’s very knowledgeable in the authors we’re dealing with, organized in her materials, and she’s very sweet, and that makes class fun and interesting to be in.”
Teaching isn’t all van Keuren is interested in. She has published plays, articles, poetry and entries in encyclopedias, but her specialty is children’s literature.
“She’s a very talented writer and artist,” Custer said. “She does gorgeous drawings. They are so detailed.”
Besides her writing, van Keuren is also “outdoorsy,” and can be seen in the summer hiking around her Chalk Hill home. Or she might be gardening, with her flock of five geese behind her, and her seven cats and yellow lab nearby.
Somehow in the midst of her busy life, van Keuren still finds reading time with her favorite authors, Russian playwright Anton Chekov, Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and American novelist Edith Wharton.
Her words about her night class sum up her caring attitude.
“I think I’m going to make it a short class for them tonight,” she said. “The roads are getting bad, and I want them to make it home safely.”
Sarah Kerin, 20, is a junior English major with a concentration in journalism from Finleyville.