In the 1970s, Kelly and Cheryl Keithly heard a pioneering educator named Charles Manske, Concordia’s founding president, speak at their church about the vision for a Lutheran university in Southern California. His presentation inspired the young couple.
“Our kids were all young and college seemed a long way off, but we were really excited about the vision,” Cheryl says. “At the time we didn’t have much, but we gave, and little by little we were able to increase it.”
Kelly Keithly was working in the seed business and in 1981 he stepped out in faith to start his own company. Cheryl wasn’t convinced it would work.
“When we started we were so poor we couldn’t pay attention, is Kelly’s expression,” says Cheryl. “The only thing I could picture was him going door to door with seed packets selling to housewives. I started crying and saying, ‘How are you going to support us doing that?’ I had no concept of selling seed by the pound to growers. I figured when it started we would raise our kids, hoping to have enough money to send them to college.”
Kelly had training in agriculture, not business, but from the beginning he dedicated the company to God and spent much time praying for the company, his customers and his employees.
“He has been like a mentor to his employees,” Cheryl says. “They feel comfortable coming to him with personal problems. He always points them toward God. A lot were not church-goers or Bible-readers but through the years we’ve seen them start going to church. He does that not just with employees but everywhere he goes.”
The Keithlys’ seed company grew and today, under God’s guidance and blessing, Keithly-Williams Seeds is the largest seed dealer in North America with $110 million in annual sales and 150 employees. The company finds and distributes seeds from all over the world. They test seeds in certain growing areas so farmers can see the results. They have expanded into transplants, growing seeds into seedlings in greenhouses, then shipping the seedlings to growers who put them in the ground. Many growers prefer that to planting seeds themselves.
The Keithlys also sow seeds of generosity in many Christian ministries, including Concordia.
“As God blessed us we were able to increase our giving,” Cheryl says. “Concordia is right at the top of our list next to our church."
We give to quite a few of the ministries in our church body but especially Concordia, the Lutheran Hour and world missions. That’s where our heart is. We give to lots of other things, too, but we like to concentrate it where people will be hearing the gospel.”
Cheryl’s parents were “big-time tithers,” she says. “They taught us from the time we knew what a dollar bill was to tithe. It was just the natural thing. My dad never made more than $385 but was very generous and very, very happy.”
Though raised in a different church denomination, Kelly began attending a Lutheran church with Cheryl when they were dating and jumped in so enthusiastically that “you would have thought he was the original Lutheran,” Cheryl says. He served as an elder for years at their church in Holtville and is now the head elder at their present church.
“He has such a heart for missions,” Cheryl says. “I’m always amazed at how he witnesses to people sitting across from them at dinner, sharing his faith in a low-key way, urging people to get into the Word and go to church if they’re not. He sends Lutheran Hour devotions to quite a group of people every day and checks up on them to make sure they’re reading them.
"He's quite the little missionary. He has a long list of people he prays for. He gets up early in the morning. I'll go out and see him with his Bible and prayer list."
The Keithlys’ daughters Carla ’92 and SueAnn attended CUI. SueAnn’s husband is a salesman for the seed company. The company’s vice president of operations is married to the Keithlys’ oldest daughter. Cheryl is a gift-planning advocate for the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League and has served on CUI’s Board of Trustees since the 1990s, “which I was tickled to do because it allowed me to become more involved,” she says.
Cheryl says she and Kelly are “amazed at all of the new programs Concordia is offering now, the growth not just in undergraduate students but in adult programs, master’s degrees, online programs. It’s become so big and far-reaching. What it has done in the community as far as outreach with faith and business forums, the public policy program, the theatre and music departments that reach into the community, the big gala that raises over half a million dollars for scholarships. To see the campus change since our daughters were there, there’s no comparison to what it is now. The leaders they are producing, not just church workers and seminary students and teachers, but business leaders with a Christian worldview—that’s so badly needed. Business leaders often are able to reach more lives, like my husband. He was considering going to the seminary in his early thirties but decided not to. I think of the people he has reached with his life. He goes all over the world and is influencing people in a way he couldn’t do from the pulpit.”
The American Seed Trade Association recently gave Kelly its Lifetime Honorary Membership Award, one of the highest awards it gives out. “God has blessed us far beyond anything we ever could have imagined,” Cheryl says. “The reason I love it so much is because it has allowed us to share the gift. We can live quite simply. The joy comes in being able to share those gifts and use God’s money in that way.”
When they die, the Keithlys’ estate will go to six different Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod ministries including CUI.
“It’s so exciting that God’s blessings will continue long after we’re gone,” says Cheryl. “Anything invested in the lives of students at Concordia is going to be blessed manifold over the generations as these students go out and use what they’ve been taught, whether in church work, school, business, medicine, engineering, whatever. They’re not just learning academics, they are learning a way of life.”
She is excited to think that she and Kelly have been giving since before Concordia University Irvine started, “when it was still just a vision,” she says. “Back then if you’d told us what our involvement would be at this point in our lives we wouldn’t have believed you. It was inconceivable. It’s been an exciting ride.”