A look back at the career of Louis O.D. Kealer

US Army Corp of Engineers
Published Sept. 8, 2021
portrait of Louis Kealer

Louis Kealer served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Little Rock District for an incredible 50 years. Hired as the first dam tender at Blue Mountain Dam he spent his entire career in the same location until his retirement in 1989.

Louis O.D. Kealer was born into a family devoted to the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  His father, Fred P. Kealer, worked 48 years for the Corps, primarily at the early system of locks on the White River near Batesville, Arkansas.  From his earliest memories the Corps of Engineers was a part of Louis Kealer’s life.

portrait of Lois O.D. Kealer

Mr. Kealer enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II.  He served in the Philippines on a dredging vessel that enabled United States ships to deliver supplies to troops there.  After the war ended he began work for the Corps of Engineers working on riverboats at Lock #1 at Batesville.

The United States Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938 in June of that year.  Pressure to do this was a result of what was termed a “great flood” that affected several states, including Arkansas, in 1937, as well as earlier flood events including the disastrous flood of 1927.  This legislation included approval for the Corps of Engineers to construct several dams in the lower Mississippi River valley drainage basin including both Nimrod and Blue Mountain Dams.  Construction on Nimrod began in 1940 and was completed in 1942.  Work on Blue Mountain Dam also began in 1940, but work was suspended during World War II. It was then completed in June of 1947.  Final inspections of Blue Mountain Dam were completed and the project was turned over from Construction personnel to Operations Division personnel in August 1947.

Louis O.D. Kealer was hired as the first Damtender at Blue Mountain Dam.  He and his family moved to the area in August and he began work at the project when Operations Division assumed responsibility.  He told me once that when he and his family came to look at the project and consider the job offer he told his wife, Doris, “I have a job; if we aren’t satisfied here we might stay a year or two but can go back to Batesville.”  He ended up staying 42 years.  A part of the planned construction of project facilities at Blue Mountain Dam was the building of two operators’ quarters (residences) for the project superintendent and damtender and their families.  The Corps policy at the time was that, on these projects, two employees should live on the project very near the office and dam in order to operate the dam as needed, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Because the operator’s quarters were not built as yet the Kealer family lived for a year in Booneville at what was called the “Government Village” in the northeastern part of town.  This “Government Village” consisted of homes for Corps of Engineers employees overseeing the construction of the dam.  Since the dam was completed most had been vacated.  These homes were eventually sold to the public. When the operators’ quarters were completed the Kealer family moved to Blue Mountain Dam.

Mr. Kealer became part of the earliest staff at Blue Mountain Dam.  He worked under the first Project Superintendent, Mr. Roy Finney.  Mr. Finney was there for several years and then was succeeded by Mr. Charles McGrady.  Along with his damtender duties Mr. Kealer served informally as the foreman for the work crew.  During these early years the Corps began making efforts toward recreation development to go along with the operation of the lake for flood control.  What is now Waveland Park was described as a swamp, being part of the Petit Jean River bottoms.  Outlet Area Park (what many call the spillway) was a barren area because of the “spoil” material excavated from the discharge tunnel.  Now, through time and much work, these two parks are beautiful and heavily used – with much of the credit going to Mr. Kealer’s many years of leadership and direction.

three men standing together

When Mr. McGrady retired Mr. Kealer was promoted to Project Superintendent (the job title was eventually changed to Facility Maintenance Manager), the beginning of many years as a supervisor/manager for the Corps.  Upon Mr. McGrady’s retirement the Blue Mountain Project was combined with the Nimrod Project and Mr. Kealer, although in charge of Blue Mountain, was responsible to the Resident Engineer, Mr. William Barns, who was located at Nimrod Dam.  Nimrod was chosen as the Resident Office for both projects because it had been in operation longer and was closer to the Little Rock District headquarters.  Mr. Barns retired in the mid-1960’s and was replaced by Mr. Millard Cross.  Mr. Kealer served in his position at Blue Mountain until August 1972.

In late 1971-early 1972 Mr. Cross retired.  At that time, the Nimrod and Blue Mountain projects were temporarily placed under the responsibility and oversight of the Dardanelle Resident Office on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.  It was determined that this should not be the permanent way to manage these projects because they are so different from the MKARNS system.  The position of Resident Engineer at Nimrod-Blue Mountain Resident Office was posted, and Mr. Kealer was selected for the job.  He and his wife moved to the Nimrod Dam project in August 1972.  They lived in one of the operators’ quarters at Nimrod.

Mr. Kealer held this job until his retirement in January 1989. He always said he wanted to work a little longer than his father did.  He had fifty years of dedicated service, a career two years longer than his father’s.   Within a few years he became a member of the Corps of Engineers Little Rock District “Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees,” which is just about the highest honor a retired Corps civilian employee can receive.

Louis Kealer loved the Corps of Engineers.  He supported it throughout his life.  Whenever he made a talk at employee events or other occasions he would pull out his notes from his pocket and give a brief history of the Army and the Corps of Engineers.  He wanted his employees to know that it was a great organization in which they were a part, and he trained them in public service and professionalism.    He was able to hire many student employees for summer work which aided them greatly in their future education or other endeavors. Several of these student employees went on to have careers with the Corps of Engineers including some with the Nimrod and Blue Mountain projects. Under his leadership both Nimrod and Blue Mountain Dams continued to operate and be maintained in a superior manner.  Development of the parks and lake areas improved significantly throughout the years. 

Mr. Kealer was active in his community.  He was a member of the Havana Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Havana Ruritan Club.  He served for a short time on the Havana School Board and was a strong supporter of our local schools in Yell County.  Upon his retirement, he and Mrs. Kealer moved back to their hometown of Batesville.

Mr. Louis O.D. Kealer passed away on July 25, two and one-half  weeks before he would have turned 102 years old.  What a life of service he lived and what an impact he made on an area and on so many people – many of whom never knew him personally.  He was a true gentleman in both his professional and personal life.  He was also my boss, mentor, and friend for whom I will always have great respect.  He will not be forgotten.

man speaking into a microphoone