Swissvale Native, Cabinet Maker Dies a Month Shy of 106th Birthday
William A. Keyser built his own business, despite having never graduated from high school.
William (Bill) Keyser spent his childhood walking along the muddy streets and wooden sidewalks of Swissvale and Wilmerding.
He was a young teenager when World War I came to a close and he married the love of his life during the depths of the Great Depression. He retired before the end of the Vietnam War.
Keyser, of Perrysville, died June 7, a month shy of his 106th birthday.
Bill Keyser was born July 9, 1906, in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s North Side. Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States and the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 100 points for the first time in history that year.
His formal education stopped at age 11 after his father lost both legs in a train accident in Wilmerding. Keyser would pull his father to work in a wagon several miles each day so the elder Keyser could work as a plumber and train his son. By the time he was 13, as World War I was ending, he obtained a special driver’s license, which allowed him to drive a truck, as long as his father was sitting next to him.
At 15, Keyser tired of the family plumbing business and went to work as a carpenter, eventually becoming a cabinetmaker.
He met the love of his life in grade school, and on June 24, 1931, he married Margaret Wessel at St. Teresa Church in Perrysville.
“The day I got married was the best day of my life,” he said with a smile. “She was seven years younger than me. She was going on 18, and I was 25.”
The young couple’s marriage would be tested early when the economy failed and he lost his business.
“I owed $3,200 on my first house when it was foreclosed on during the depression, and she stuck with me,” he said. She would be by his side until her death in 2003.
“Seventy-two years of marriage, those were the best years of my life,” he said. “We got along like two kids, never an argument. She had patience.”
Bill and Margaret survived the Great Depression, raising their daughter, Rosemarie, and sons William and Edward in the home he built in 1934 in Perrysville. Eventually, Keyser started what would become a very successful cabinet business. “I always had more work than I could handle,” he said.
In 1968, Keyser turned 62 and said he was ready to retire.
“I just had a funny notion I wouldn’t be around, so I said to the wife, I think I’m going to retire, and you and I are going to go traveling. We went to Hawaii four times; the last two times we were there for a month.”
Although he had retired from work, Keyser never slowed down. He would spend five to six hours a day in his cabinet shop, repairing antique furniture and making rocking chairs, birdhouses and other items to give away. He also doted on his seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
After nearly being involved in a traffic accident in 2005, Keyser said he decided to give up his driver’s license at age 99, but he continued his daily trips to his wood shop for three more years.
“I worked in my shop until I was 102, till I nearly lost my thumb on a saw, and that was a warning there.”
As for the key to his longevity, Keyser said it was knowing when to relax.
“I took my drink everyday, either a highball, Manhattan or a drink of wine,” he said. “I grew up during Prohibition, and that’s when everyone had something to drink.”
He spent his last years at The Haven at North Hills, an assisted-living facility, where the staff marveled at his longevity.
“He talked so much to us about his life, and he thought his long life came from always working, always caring for others and always treating people with respect,” said Carolyn Koerbel, a former medication technician at the facility. “He was a gentle man who had tons and tons of wonderful stories.”
His good friend and companion, Margaret Grogan, cared for him until her death in 2010. Bill was the longest living member of St. Teresa of Avila Parish, in Perrysville. Mass of Christian Burial will be at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Teresa of Avila Church.