Keith Jefferson Rodenbough ~ The Last of the Sagebrush Sailors
Keith J. Rodenbough was an extraordinary man. Born and raised in Umatilla, Ore., Keith followed in his father’s watery path. Keith’s father, Harry Rodenbough, owned and operated the ferry boat which crossed the Columbia River at Umatilla before the bridge was built. Alva Stephens, Keith’s friend since third grade, piloted that ferry boat. At age 16 Keith became the youngest tugboat pilot on the Columbia River. He navigated the rough Columbia River at the helm of the legendary Winquatt operated by Inland Navigation Company. Those early days of piloting were so treacherous that many aspiring commercial sailors would give up after only a few months. Keith was so accomplished at such a perilous job that he was recruited to work on the Great Lakes and the Alaskan Coast. At age 27 he was drafted and served in the United States Army where he served in the navigational field. Keith had a great love of all mechanical transportation. In addition to tugboats and barges, Keith studied commercial airplanes and locomotives. From 1968 to 1977, Keith would drive to Portland most weekends where he and his friend, Don Feller, would spend hours building a model railroad train complete with mountains, towns and a train yard. The outside track was 60 feet around.
At 6’1” Keith was a tall, lean, dapper, gentleman. He took great pride in always wearing well-pressed shirts and shoes with a high shine. In fact, he was so handsome, well-dressed and knowledgeable about commercial planes that his friends would introduce him at parties as “Captain Rodenbough” of United Airlines. Despite his gentlemanly ways, good looks and intelligence, Keith never married or had children. His post-river life was dedicated to caring for his parents and being an active community member in Umatilla.
Keith’s mother, Hettie, fell ill while Keith was working on the Great Lakes. His father Harry called Keith, asking him to come home to help care for her. Thus, in his 40s Keith ended his career, returning home to Umatilla to care for his parents who died at ages 98 and 99. In Umatilla Keith was an active member of the Elks and heavily involved with the Umatilla Museum. He was interviewed several times by reporters and by Columbia River historians. He and his beloved Winquatt were featured in an OPB documentary. Over the years Keith would travel with his friend Don to places like Washington DC and Las Vegas to take in museums and private collections. In the last few years of his life Keith would go out twice a week with his friend Alva and Alva’s daughter, Jimmie Schleh. Together they would grocery shop, attend Sunday services and eat at a local diner. On his birthday each year Keith would put on a pressed shirt with a tie and those shiny shoes to lunch with his friends Pam Stocker, Kathy Bush and Kathleen Raw from Edward Jones.
Keith Rodenbough lived an extraordinary life. The name “Sagebrush Sailor” is about more than just a livelihood, it is about a type of man, one that no longer exists.
A graveside service will be held Saturday, October 5, at 1 p.m. at Sunset Cemetery in Umatilla, Oregon.
Keith was well-loved. Dear friends include Don and Mary Feller of Portland, Oregon; Amanda Feller of Tacoma, Washington; Alva Stephens of Umatilla, Oregon; Jimmie Schleh of Umatilla; Pam Stocker, Kathy Bush and Kathleen Raw of Edward Jones, Hermiston, Oregon as well as several neighbors and community members. Keith’s surviving family include his sister Doris Hiatt, 98, of Beaverton; nephew Jerry Hiatt of Hermiston; nephew Phil Hiatt of Beaverton; and niece Sue Hiatt Arnaud of Beaverton; grand-nieces Cammie Hiatt Hewitt; Erin Hiatt Davis; Stephanie Arnaud Edwards; and grand-nephew Chris Hiatt; as well as several great-grand nieces and nephews.