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Dimond fellow David Keller sitting in Degree Restaurant with his reflection in the glass door pane.

Turning chaos into order

Army veteran David Keller is transforming his tactical background and elbow grease into a new career in hospitality.

December 4, 2018

By Cory Phare

A long, dark Alaska winter helped military veteran David Keller find a new calling.

He was living in Fairbanks and adjusting to life in northern latitudes following 12 years in the Army. His service included stints as a combat engineer and a water-treatment specialist around the globe, including in Operation Desert Storm.

As The Last Frontier’s winter nights got longer, so did Keller’s time.

In the summer, when Fairbanks sees nearly 24 hours of daylight, everyone works in areas like construction and mining, he said. In the winter, when the outpost experiences less than 4 hours of daylight, you live off of what you’ve earned.

“I can’t sit still, though, so I started cooking,” Keller said.

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"I'm not the type of person to settle and I realized you can only go so far without a degree," said Keller, pictured here behind an aerial art instillation in the MSU Denver Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center. Photo by Alyson McClaran

That decision led to a job as a kitchen manager planning parties, weddings and other events, and put the Army veteran on his path in a different landscape of logistics.

Keller decided to take advantage of his U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tuition benefits to transform his career and today is an event and meeting management senior with a minor in marketing at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

He’s also a fall 2018 awardee of The Rita and Navin Dimond Fellows Program, involving a comprehensive and immersive rotation throughout Stonebridge Companies’ DoubleTree by Hilton – Denver Tech Center hotel. Whether working with engineers to prepare a swimming pool, aiding the front desk with check-in, setting up tables for banquets or helping housekeeping fold towels, Keller emphasized the importance of an experiential understanding of the jobs constituting a successful enterprise.

“To be a good leader, you have to lead by example,” he said. “And I can’t lead by example if I haven’t done something myself – I have to be immersed, to walk in those shoes.”

Launching Stonebridge Companies in 1991, the Dimonds have grown the privately owned firm into a nationwide innovative hotel owner, operator and developer that boasts more than 50 properties and has its headquarters in Denver. Other fall 2018 fellowship recipients include Raina Maslowski and Samuel Berg.

In addition to showing gratitude for the opportunities and family-like environment cultivated by the Dimonds, Keller thanked faculty members including James Drake, Carol Krugman, Michael Wray and outgoing interim department chair, Clay Daughtrey, of the newly christened School of Hospitality, Events and Tourism; Dean Christian Hardigree is slated to take the school’s helm Jan. 2.

Keller also acknowledged the University’s overall commitment to military veterans.

“Other institutions have services for veterans, but it’s more mechanical: You step inside, get the resource, and you’re done,” he said. “Here, it’s very inviting – it has created this environment where all of the other vets want to volunteer to help out.

“You can tell MSU Denver really cares about veteran students.”

Keller also finds time to give back to the community with MSU Denver food-insecurity partner Food for Thought.

“There was a time in my life when I wasn’t the richest person in the world and there were people who lent a hand to me. Now, it’s my turn to pay it back a little,” he said.

"The whole hotel is like a big family." Keller, pictured here next to the Dimond family portrait hanging in the MSU Denver Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, is currently rotating through various roles at the DoubleTree by Hilton – Denver Tech Center hotel as part of his fellowship. Photo by Alyson McClaran
"The whole hotel is like a big family." Keller, pictured here next to the Dimond family portrait hanging in the MSU Denver Hotel and Hospitality Learning Center, is currently rotating through various roles at the DoubleTree by Hilton – Denver Tech Center hotel as part of his fellowship. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Keller has always been driven. More than that, however, he knows how to prepare for events that can’t be prepared for.

“Planners need to understand nothing ever goes right, but keeping yourself under control makes everyone around you feel secure and able to take control of the situation themselves,” he said. “That’s turning chaos into order.”

The ability to manage unpredictability has served him well. Through the zigzag path of life, if we’re lucky, we’re bestowed the benefit of wisdom, a commingling of content and context with the awareness of how and when to deploy them.

For Keller, who will cross the commencement stage to receive his diploma Dec. 14 – his birthday – it’s also an opportunity for reflection.

“I’m not as strict as I used to be, but I’m still as disciplined; I don’t like to leave jobs unfinished and will volunteer to come in early or stay late,” he said.  

“I’m also living proof you can teach an old dog new tricks,” he added, with a smile.