I met Lucille Keil when she was a spry 84-year-old museum guide. She was my docent at the Young Museum in Bellevue, Iowa, leading me around the house filled with souvenirs collected by Joe and Grace Young during their world travels. During that first tour, she scowled when we reached a glass cabinet near the kitchen.
On a shelf in front of us, someone had rotated a porcelain piece called Landlord in Love. It depicts a man peeping through a hole in a wall at a partially undressed woman. With the piece turned around, guests weren’t subjected to the scandalous sight of the female figure’s bare breasts.
“That’s not right,” she said to me. “I think we should show things as they really are. They [the Youngs] had a sense of humor or else they would have not bought that piece.”
Right then I knew we were going to be friends. Lucille died on June 13, 2019 at the age of 96. She led a remarkable life, an admirable life. And she was one of the toughest and smartest people I ever met.
Barely five feet tall with dusty brown hair that added a few additional inches of vertical height, Lucille was warm and gracious during our first tour. She articulated every word and phrase with the precision of a German engineer, which did nothing to disguise the enthusiasm she felt for the museum’s unique collection.
As she led me around, she told stories about the Youngs and the objects in their house, then paused to ask a few questions about my life and background. I think the Youngs left their collection to the people of Bellevue to show them the world beyond their small river town. It certainly did that for Lucille.
I went back to Bellevue three weeks after my first visit and asked to interview her, which simultaneously flattered and disarmed her. As she fumbled over words trying to clarify that I wanted to interview her, she lost track of her footing and nearly stumbled over the stoop.
I’ve been wanting to tell Lucille’s story for some time, but she wouldn’t have it. She didn’t want the attention. Well, she can’t stop me now.
Lucille grew up in rural Bellevue, the daughter of Frank Ernst and Rose Mueller. Musical talent runs deep in the family. Rose and her sisters played in a well-regarded band when they were young. Rose had an opportunity to get a music education but passed on it to stay home and help with the family. Lucille learned to play the piano and passed on the family’s love of music to her son, Kenny, Jr., who played the guitar and piano and sang.