"I couldn't have lived with myself if something happened
and I knew I could have done something to prevent it..."
A native son of New Orleans, John Keller feels the Mississippi River runs through his veins -- constantly moving and passionately driven. His experiences are mixed to a perfect gumbo, a “little of this” and a “little of that”. Each skill learned aligning him with his fate that would one day impact many lives during the darkest week in New Orleans' history.
Born into a middle-class professional family, he attended private schools from his early years through high school, graduating from the elite boarding school, St. Stanislaus College Preparatory in Mississippi. An active student, he earned his pilot license for a Cessna 172, was a member of the ski and yacht team, captain of the basketball team and the first black student voted as senior class President. Though raised in an environment of priviledged conditions, John witnessed at an early age the opportunities afforded him were vastly different from those of his friends who lived from the hood to the Governor’s mansion. He saw that there was a distinct schism, which separated his educational experiences from that of his friends. Was it socioeconomic or was it racial? This quandary remained with him throughout his life, but he was determined to answer this question and set out on a journey of professional and personal discovery. With dreams of becoming a marine biologist, he attended Xavier University, but suspended his studies during his sophomore year to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
John served for four years and was in active duty during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in Operation Desert Shield / Desert Storm. Lance Corporal Keller was a member of the 1st Reconnaissance Marine, 1st Recon Battalion and took part in a five-man Special Forces Team. The skills learned during this time would later prove invaluable. Honorably discharged from the Armed Forces, John returned to the Crescent City a decorated veteran and received a Key to the City.
Shortly thereafter, he started a construction company and returned to his studies at Xavier University. Partnering with family members, he also developed residential and commercial properties, as well as, designed and built custom furniture. However, even with the success of his business ventures, John felt he should be giving back to the community. While working at the New Orleans Marine Institute, he took children from Juvenile Detention Centers and provided them with counseling, wilderness training and even scuba diving instructions. John hoped to expose behavior-challenged inner city youth to new and diverse experiences; enriching them with an understanding and belief that one’s environment does not dictate one’s ability to achieve. In addition, he led them on volunteer excursions to the local food bank, Second Harvest, to bag food for the homeless and hungry. With each child, he prepared case studies and monitored the progress of each individually assigned to his care; however, the emotional connection he shared with his wards proved more challenging as he became a father-figure to most.
With lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from Iraq, it was difficult for him to not bring his work home, feeling responsible for each child’s welfare. A proud father himself, John could no longer watch as the city’s youth became victims of a social and political injustice. He began developing the idea for a youth program called Confidence Camp.
November 2001, John became one of the first residents of the American Can Apartment, a building that had withstood all the large hurricanes of the past century. “The Can” was a vibrant mix of diverse middle and upper class cultures of all ages. It was all he had hoped for in a community. On August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit and broke the levees, John watched in horror as his beloved city began to fill with water. With no apparent help in sight John strapped the American Can on his back and went into action. In many instances risking his life, John orchestrated the safety and rescue of old, young, rich, poor, Black, White – PEOPLE – 244 in all, trapped in the building. His story is currently being made into a feature film with interest from the likes of Will Smith and Denzel Washington.
Affectionately called “The Can Man” by the city of New Orleans, John will forever remember this moment in history as a time of humanity, courage, faith and rebirth.