Evelyn Keiser, co-founder of Keiser University, dies at 100
Evelyn Keiser, co-founder of Fort Lauderdale’s Keiser University and a pioneer for women in science and education, died Monday in Pompano Beach, her family said. She was 100 years old.
Keiser University began as a two-room storefront in Fort Lauderdale with only one student, and is now one of Florida’s biggest private, non-profit universities. Keiser founded the school with her son, Arthur Keiser, the current chancellor, in 1977. She taught until she was 90 years old.
Before she founded a university, however, Keiser was a young woman pursuing science in 1940s Philadelphia who fought to get an education and later start her own laboratory despite expectations of her gender.
“She thought she could so she did, that’s what we say about her,” her son, Jeffrey Keiser, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Saturday. “She did and did and did.”
Keiser was born in 1924, the third of four children, and grew up in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. Money was tight, and so her father decided only the boys in the family could go to college and medical school, her son, Jeffrey Keiser, told the Sun Sentinel on Saturday.
But Keiser went anyway. She graduated first in her class at the Philadelphia High School for Girls and managed to win a full college scholarship to Temple University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in medical technology. She also got married at 19 years old, but continued with her studies despite discouragement otherwise, according to an obituary written by her family.
“She always had a vision,” her daughter, Ellen Farren, said Saturday.
After World War II, Keiser started her own medical laboratory in 1946, where, among other things, she performed four-dollar pregnancy tests using rabbits, Jeffrey Keiser said. Without the technology of today, Keiser had to inject the rabbits and open them up to look at their ovaries to see if a woman was pregnant.
When Keiser first opened the lab, it was removed from the national registry because women didn’t own labs at the time, Arthur Keiser said. Years later, after Keiser University started its own lab tech program, they wrote to the organization that governs the registry and got them to reinstate her.
Keiser used the money she earned from the lab to put her husband through medical school, Jeffrey Keiser said.
“Here you are, a woman business owner in 1946,” he added. “All the men coming back from the army, looking for jobs, and my mother starts a business. And it’s a successful business. You can imagine the flack she got from people, ‘what do you mean you’re not taking care of children at home?’”
In 1959, Keiser also began teaching laboratory sciences at the Franklin School of Science and Arts, yet still managed to juggle her career with raising three kids. Sometimes this meant bringing her children to the lab, and at home, keeping frogs in the refrigerator, which forces them to hibernate. Her daughter Ellen recalled taking them out until they woke up and playing with them.
When Keiser’s husband became a doctor, she became “the perfect doctor’s wife,” Jeffrey Keiser said. She turned herself into a gourmet chef, serving dinner guests dishes such as cherries jubilee and gazpacho.
Eventually, Keiser moved to Florida, first living in Hollywood. Her marriage had ended, and using the money from her divorce settlement and help from her family, she decided to start Keiser University with Arthur, who was a graduate student at the time.
It was a rocky beginning, Arthur Keiser said. The school operated out of a 2,400-square-foot storefront on Oakland Park Boulevard, with five staff members and one student.
“One of the things we learned is we didn’t know very much about running a school,” he said.
When the lone student, Terry Schmidt, realized she had no classmates, she told the Sun Sentinel back in 2011 that she had wondered if she should get a refund. But she stayed because she liked her teacher, Evelyn Keiser.
“I was totally convinced of her passion for education,” Schmidt said. She graduated and went into nursing.
Eventually the school grew into a career college, then a university. Today, it has over 20,000 students a year and 20 campuses across Florida and in other countries. It offers majors across disciplines both graduate and undergraduate programs.
Those who took Keiser’s classes knew her as a tough teacher, though she also cared deeply about her students. The story was, “if you can make it in her class, you can make it anywhere,” Arthur Keiser said. With strict dress codes and attendance, “the whole school was designed around the philosophy that we have structure.”
Many of Keiser’s students went on to become medical professionals throughout South Florida. In 2015, she was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in Tallahassee.
She continued to teach until she was 90, after which she worked as an advisor until the age of 94, Arthur Keiser said.
On the day before Keiser’s 100th birthday, another of her grandchildren, Elizabeth Farren, recalled on Facebook that she told her, “I’m going to make it to 100, but then I’m checking out of this hotel.”
Another of her grandchildren, Robert Keiser, wrote on Facebook, “Although I am sad, I am filled more with gratitude. Gratitude for the wisdom and love she bestowed upon us. Gratitude for the example she has set for my daughters. Gratitude for the memories she has left us with.”
Learning and teaching defined Keiser’s life into old age, her family said. In her 80’s, she learned yoga. Each year she took her family on increasingly adventurous trips, beginning with just Ellen and eventually including all of the grandchildren.
“She was a real, real pioneer in school and education,” Jeffrey Keiser said. “And she lived the life she taught.”
Information from the Sun Sentinel archives was used in this report.