Johnny Keys, who counseled 2,000 ex-offenders, dies at 61

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Johnny Keys | Provided photo

When Johnny Keys started counseling ex-offenders, the quarrels between the men softened.

“You could see guys who could settle their arguments in a more effective manner, where they didn’t drag things out,” said Ervin Robinson of the Safer Foundation.

“He helped the whole group,” said one of those men, Percy Brown. “He said, ‘Get yourself together, do a nice job back home with your family, and do the right thing.’ ”

Mr. Keys’ lessons were applicable to all relationships. “Things like just counting to 10 before you respond. Just walking away. Say what you got to say, get your point across and leave it alone,” Robinson said. “Listen to the other person, make sure you understand what it is that they’re trying to say, and agree to disagree.”

To keep his own cool, Mr. Keys walked 10,000 steps a day. He walked around his office parking lot for 30 minutes before work, during lunch and at quitting time. In his plant-filled office, he listened to recordings of nature sounds — wind, waves, rain. He injected a little loopiness into his routine by watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” on his phone.

He used to tell people, “Have a wonderful Safer day.”


Johnny Keys and his sister, Bobbi Lyles. | Provided photo

Mr. Keys, 61, was found dead at his Lawndale home on April 29, two days before he and eight relatives were to fly to Cancun, where he planned to swim with dolphins and try zip-lining on his first trip outside the U.S. It’s believed he suffered a heart attack, said his sister, Bobbi Lyles. It took a long time to persuade him to go, she said. He almost never took vacations.

“In the blink of an eye, instead of planning a vacation, I was planning a funeral,” she said. “It was hard to get him to stop and take care of himself . . . we almost made it.” Services have been held.

During the five years he was with Crossroads, at 3210 W. Arthington St., he supervised anger counseling for about 2,000 men, in groups of 15 to 30 at a time. The men, who are on work-release from the Illinois Department of Corrections, are considered minimum-security risks with less than two years to serve for nonviolent offenses.

“If the class that he taught was taught in grammar school, in high school, we wouldn’t have all of the shootings and killings that we’re having out in the streets,” said Robinson, an associate vice president of Safer, and supervisor of its Crossroads Adult Transition Center, which trains ex-inmates and helps them find jobs. “People would learn to settle their differences and not be so quick to fight if they just practice some of the things that he taught.”

“We probably have people in here from every gang in Chicago, and they come in here and they get along,” Robinson said. “If one is going out for a job, they’ll loan them a tie or loan them a shirt.’’

To give the residents a treat, Mr. Keys obtained tickets from the Black Ensemble Theater so they could attend “The Story of Curtis Mayfield.”

He grew up on the West Side. “He understood their challenges,” Robinson said.His mother, Roberta Keys, was from a family of 18. She taught her two children to work hard. Growing up near Belzoni, Mississippi, she said farmers vied for her help, because “I could pick 100 pounds of cotton a day.” In Chicago, she worked at Hall’s Printing, lifting heavy books and magazines into packing boxes.

Young Johnny went to Crane High School and Northern Illinois University. He had a college-era period when he drank too much, but his mother’s insistence on self-reliance made him see — and say — “ ‘The cavalry isn’t coming,’ ” his sister said. He earned a master’s degree at the University of Houston and worked for 20 years in Texas before returning to Chicago to help care for his mother, who died in 2010.

Mr. Keys loved shrimp, catfish and greens with ham hocks. He had a 1980 navy blue Buick Regal he kept in cream-puff condition. “People would ask him what he wanted for that car,” Bobbi Lyles said.

He saw every James Bond film. His favorite was “Goldfinger.” He told people not to call him when “The Blacklist” was on, or “Person of Interest.’’ SpongeBob was his reliable source of levity. “He said, ‘I’m in love with SpongeBob,’ ” his sister recalled. “ ‘I need to get away, and this is my escape.’ ’’

“This man was a workaholic, and we laughed, because it’s part of our heritage. My mom was that way,” his sister said. When he failed to respond to a text, Bobbi Lyles sensed something was wrong. She went to his home. “When I found him, I said, ‘You know what? If you didn’t want to go on vacation with me, you could have just changed your mind.’ ”

Her husband told her, “You’re losing it.”

“My brother thought he would work forever,” she said.

Johnny Keys (right) and his family. | Provided photo

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