Malibu bids adieu to Walt Keller, the town’s first mayor 

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Lucille Keller stands besides a photograph of Walt at the Celebration of Life on Saturday, Dec. 9 at Malibu United Methodist Church. Photos by Samantha Bravo/TMT

Lauded as the patriarch of the city, attendees at his memorial service celebrated his life and passion for preserving the rural character of Malibu

By Barbara Burke

Special to The Malibu Times

Walt Keller was unrelenting in his tenacious advocacy for preserving Malibu’s unique rural nature and incorporating Malibu despite opposition from LA County.

Throughout his more than six decades living in Malibu, Keller was motivated by his deep respect for this special town that is imbued with the beauty of a treasured ecosystem and is blessed with gorgeous beaches and unparalleled mountains. Those were the central theses of the many honorific testimonials shared at a well-attended memorial celebrating and honoring the lengthy, happy, and successful life of Keller, Malibu’s first mayor, founder of the Malibu Township Council, and champion of all things Malibu. 

Friends, family, community leaders, and adoring fans gathered at the Malibu United Methodist Church on Dec. 9 to celebrate Keller’s life and to honor his tremendous contributions to Malibu. Rev. Sandy Liddell and Rev. Erin Stenberg officiated.

“Our city and community — and Lucille and his family — were Walt’s life,” Graeme Clifford said. “He did more than anyone to keep the city rural — the city’s vision statement was the creed Walt lived by.”

John Mazza noted that when he moved to Malibu 52 years ago, everybody had license plates that said, “Malibu — A way of life.” 

“It was that message that Walt embodied — the fact that we had a special place,” Mazza said. “Walt and Lucille enjoyed nature all the time and they were avid hikers. They kept that essential point of view alive.”

Keller spearheaded many efforts fighting against overdevelopment. Harriet Pollon recounted that the Malibu Township Council was established in the Kellers’ living room, and soon Walt, Lucille, and township council members were perennially battling to keep Malibu’s rural character.

“We had to get traffic studies to make our case concerning why the big rigs shouldn’t travel along PCH,” Polon said. “We had to establish that the large, 4-axle trucks were not compatible with beach traffic.” 

They succeeded, Polon noted, in large part due to Keller’s tenacity. In 1981, a truck ban was enacted prohibiting large trucks from traveling on PCH between McClure Tunnel and County Line, with limited exceptions for deliveries. “That ban remains in effect 42 years later,” Polon noted.

Applauding Keller’s indefatigable efforts to preserve Malibu, Mayor Steve Urhing noted, “History is made by people who have the wisdom and the courage to look a challenge in the eye and do something about it. It is most fitting that Walt Keller’s favorite song was ‘This Land is Your Land,’ because he believed that this land — Malibu — was made for you and me.”

Malibu native Suzanne Guldimann, a local author, journalist, and environmental advocate, shared her memories of Keller.

“I’ve known Walt and Lucille all my life,” Guldimann said. “The good that Walt did will go on as his tireless work to preserve nature is why we are surrounded by a national park.”

Leigh McCloskey, a Malibu native, shared, “With Lucille and Walt, Malibu was viewed with a sense of honor — if you love something, you protect it, and they were guiding stars protecting the spirit of this place — they knew that land and nature have no voice. We are their voice, and the Kellers acted as community elders.”

The service ended with a wonderful slide show depicting images of Keller from birth to youth, to when he married Lucille, to his championing Malibu in many contexts, to his later years. As Joellen McNaughton sang a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” images of a smiling Keller, exuberantly waving in a parade celebrating the incorporation of Malibu, traveling abroad, hiking with Lucille, enjoying his children and grandchildren, running on the beach — a smiling Keller living every moment of his long, honorable life, savoring in nature’s beauty and assiduously pioneering efforts to preserve it. 

​Keller was born in New Jersey on July 4, 1930. His was a humble beginning, and it was only at the behest of an uncle who insisted that Yale was the place for Keller to attend that he attended that university, graduating with a degree in engineering. He started working at Douglas Aircraft, but his early career was put on hold while he spent two years in the Army, where he met Lucille.

​Keller retired from Northrop Grumman, where he served for decades as an aerospace engineer. After helping to lead the effort seeking cityhood for Malibu, he

became the city’s first mayor because he was the top vote-getter for the city council incorporation election in June 1990.

​Keller lost a re-election bid for City Council in 1994, but returned to the office in 1996. He was defeated again in 2000, only to emerge victorious in 2004. He helped to found the Malibu Committee for Incorporation, and served as its president, and remained active in the Malibu Township Council until the COVID pandemic. The City of Malibu is in the process of naming Charmlee Nature Center in honor of Walt and Lucille Keller. 

Keller, 93, passed away on Oct. 13 after a long illness at his West Malibu home where he and his wife of 67 years, Lucille, lived for 62 years. He is also survived by his children Tim and Karen, granddaughters Jennifer and Hillary, and great-granddaughter MacKenzie.