They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s certainly the case when it comes to author and public speaker Keith Edmonds. Experiencing a childhood marred by tragedy, he was faced early on with choices no child should ever have to make. “When something tragic in life occurs, you have three choices: you can bottle it up, develop resentment, or face the situation head-on – the third being the choice I’ve made.” It is with this resilient attitude that Keith, despite the resonating effects of his tragedy, has been able to build a life he loves and share his story with others.
Where most children’s memories begin with riding bikes and playing with neighborhood friends, Keith’s began in a more sinister way. The son of single mother, Brenda, his biological father had never been a part of his life. When Keith was just 14 months old, his mother began dating a friend of his biological father, Ronald Eugene Allen. “He was incredibly kind to my mother and took her out on some great dates – he seemed like a nice guy.” Nonetheless, things aren’t always what they seem. On November 17th, 1978, things took an unexpected turn. After being drugged, Brenda woke to screaming and soon discovered the unimaginable: her son had sustained severe burns to his upper torso. Unsure as to how it happened, Keith soon became a ward of the state of Michigan and spent eight months in the hospital recovering from his burns. Despite no confession from Allen, evidence supported his involvement in Keith’s burning and he went on to spend 14 years in jail. Brenda, who still has no recollection of that night, was inevitably cleared by the court system and regained custody of Keith.
Going by advice she’d received during one of Keith’s hospital stays, Brenda began building him a life of stability and certainty. She married when Keith was four, and soon enrolled him in an elementary school in Flushing, Michigan. Peers took to his infectious personality and he rarely found himself on the receiving end of taunts. Around the same time, the Shriners took interest in Keith’s story and set him up to receive free treatments at the Shriner’s Burn Institute in Cincinnati, Ohio. Keith spent every summer until he turned 18 at the burn institute, where he underwent annual checkups and therapy to stretch the burnt area of his skin. After his visits, he was rewarded with trips to Tennessee. “Brenda and I would head to Nashville, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge – you name it. It was the highlight of my summer.” And when he was eleven years old, he was given an opportunity most burn victims would have jumped at: he was offered total reconstructive surgery. Keith immediately knew it wasn’t the choice for him. “How I look is a part of who I am – it’s how people identify me as Keith. I felt having the surgery might change that.”
Middle school brought about a different side of Keith. “It was like adolescence gone wild.” Caught shoplifting, among other things, he nearly ended up in juvenile detention. Freshman year of high school brought more of the same – until the August before his sophomore year, when both Brenda and Keith left town on their final summer trips. They returned to an empty house. “Televisions, furniture…everything. It was all gone. My stepfather had gone and taken everything with him.” It was then that Keith began to settle down. With the event of his sixteenth birthday and a new car, he joined the wrestling team where he soon made friends with new wrestling coach Robert Buchalski. And when Buchalski opened up about his father’s alcoholism, Keith came to a realization that would forever change his outlook: “Everyone has scars. Some wear them outwardly, while some wear them on the inside.”
After high school graduation, Keith helped his long-time girlfriend settle into college life at Central Michigan University. The experience motivated Keith to attend college himself. “As I helped her move into her dorm, I looked around and realized ‘I want this.’” Having graduated with a GPA that wouldn’t support his admission in CMU, he spent a year at Mott Community College in Flint, Michigan and raised his GPA to a 3.7. With that, Keith as admitted and in 2002, he graduated with his Bachelors degree.
Upon graduation, Keith was offered a job in the university’s athletic department and in 2005 moved to Omaha, Nebraska to work with the American Hockey League. In search of personal fulfillment, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee with friend, fellow CMU graduate, and country recording artist David Ray in 2010. This final move gave him a better understanding of himself and his calling. “Among thousands of musicians in Nashville, I struggled to find my niche. But it soon became clear that telling my story was my lot in life.”
Keith is currently working on his first book (yet to be titled), as well as taking speaking engagements. “It took several years for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. It’s been quite the process. But this is a story that both needs and deserves to be told. I’m finally ready to tell it.” And despite the process being therapeutic, his efforts are not in vain. “If my story can help one child face their situation, my journey will be worth it.”