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Saturday, Mar 28, 2015

Passing of Helen Keith mourned by community


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Officially, she held the title of secretary/treasurer, but her contributions were not limited to a simple job description.

For nearly two decades, Helen Keith, her husband Harold and son Jim combined to build Spring Hill Dixie Baseball into the most successful program of its kind in the county.

She also impacted children locally for 25 years as a teacher at Westside Elementary School.

On March 24, Helen Keith passed away at age 69, after a brief battle with esophageal cancer.

“When she wasn’t in the classroom, she was at a baseball game,” said Joe Abbadessa, current Spring Hill Dixie Baseball president. “Her and Harold gave their blood, sweat and tears to make sure these kids had a place to play.

“She left a lasting mark in this community that I don’t think will ever be forgotten.”

Keith spent 41 years teaching elementary school students, and was at one point an assistant principal at St. Thomas Christian Academy in her home state of New Jersey.

The Keith family moved to Spring Hill in 1980, and she worked at Westside until her retirement in 2005.

Just a short walk up the road from Westside, Spring Hill Dixie was operating out of the Little Red School House baseball fields.

Jim Keith, who had been coaching in the league, became the director in 1993 and was aided by his parents in the day-to-day operations.

Spring Hill Dixie experienced a considerable boom in the early 2000s following a move to the newly opened Anderson Snow Sports Complex.

In 2005, the Spring Hill National AAA Minors (age 9-10) All-Stars claimed the league’s first state championship, and there have been five more since.

Finally, the Keith family stepped away from Dixie following the 2010 season. But players who rose through the league during their tenure still remain on the prep level.

Additionally, two county high school head coaches, Central’s Al Sorrentino and Nature Coast’s Vito Tambasco, came out of Spring Hill Dixie.

“She certainly touched a lot of young people’s lives in the county,” Sorrentino said of Helen Keith. “She gave kids a good opportunity to do something constructive with their time.

“For me personally, it’s a big thank you for the opportunity I had over there, and I think the whole community owes (Harold and Helen Keith) a big thank you.

“A firm, thoughtful, caring woman, but she was very fair. She’s a woman that will be very, very missed,” Tambasco said. “I know she was not with the Dixie program anymore, but she did a lot for that program. She was the backbone by far.

“I love the woman and I’m going to miss the woman.”

Shawn Laferty, another longtime Spring Hill Dixie coach, has helmed the Springstead JV team in recent seasons, and Jim Keith joined the Eagle coaching staff this year.

“She was pretty much the backbone, in my opinion, and kept that thing going,” said Laferty, who has led two Spring Hill teams to state titles. “Any time we needed something, we went to Helen because we knew she’d always take care of us.

“Every meeting I was in, every draft I was in, she was always worried about the kids, what was right for the kids and what was best for the kids. No matter what anybody thought of her, the kids came first.”

Reflecting on his mother, Jim Keith recalled certain actions that exemplified her commitment. He would tell her not to open the concession stand if volunteers didn’t step up to run it. She did it anyway, not wanting to slight the children involved.

“My mom was there for the 550 kids,” Keith said. “Sometimes what may not seem fair for your son is fair for everybody else. She put her foot down.

“She was the main contact person. She was there for each individual kid. She had the best interest of the kids at heart.”

Both of his parents devoted countless hours to the league, spending time at the field six days a week, he said. Then Sundays were spent buying food for concessions.

“I couldn’t have done it myself,” Keith said. “Back when we had a handful of teams, it was easier. But when you’re talking 50-55 teams, there’s paperwork, the administrative part of it that really nobody knows.

“I don’t think the league would be here without them,” Abbadessa said. “I don’t think anyone could have done what they did.

“Living in their shoes, I don’t think people understand the amount of work there is in doing this. I don’t think we’d be here without them. I don’t have a single doubt in my mind.”

Helen Keith is survived by Harold, her husband of 49 years, her son and daughter, Lee-Anne Yerkey, and one grandchild -- Jim’s son Ryan Keith, a current Springstead player.

“There’s been a lot of support, a lot prayers went out,” Jim Keith said. “Obviously it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, and it’s probably the same with my dad and my sister.

“She was very dedicated in everything she did. And I take that from her, to try to give the kids the best experience, try to make the best of everything, because it shows.”

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