Photo provided by the family.

Oscar Keller Jr., a native of Lee County known for his businesses and philanthropy, died on Sunday at 97 years old, according to an obituary published by Bridges-Cameron Funeral Home.

Keller was unable to attend college out of high school – he was the unexpected fifth of five children, and his family simply couldn’t afford to send him, according to a biography provided by the family – and held a number of jobs early in his career, including meat manager at a grocery store, running a restaurant in Aberdeen, supervising heavy equipment at Camp Lejeune in World War II, and more.

Keller and his late wife Elderlene founded the Keller Nursing Home in the late 1950s. Although it later sold, Oscar and Elderline also founded Parkview Retirement Village and Keller’s Oakhaven Rest Home, both in Sanford, and owned and operated several others throughout the state over the years. Additionally, Keller was also involved over the years with multiple banks both locally and elsewhere in North Carolina. He also served on boards for a seemingly endless list of nonprofit, public service, and charitable organizations, including but not limited to the Bread Basket of Sanford, the Sanford Shrine Club, and the Jonesboro Masonic Lodge.

The Sanford Herald awarded the couple its Lifetime Achievement Award for 2012 (subscription required), noting that “License number one for N.C. nursing home administrators is in Oscar’s name:”

Since the 1950s, the pair have been pioneers in the health care industry. They built, owned, operated and leased Keller Nursing Home from 1959 to 1996 — one of the first such facilities built in the state. They followed with Lenoir Nursing Home in Kinston, which they leased and operated until 1971.

To the present, the Kellers retain ownership of multiple facilities and services, including Oakhaven Retirement Home, Oakhaven Retirement Home II, Parkview Retirement Center and Parkview In-Home Aide Service. The service provides aid to residents of Lee, Chatham and Harnett counties and was the first licensed in-home aide service in Lee County.

License number one for N.C. nursing home administrators is in Oscar’s name, and he has served the industry in numerous capacities — acting as former chairman of the N.C. Board of Examiners for Nursing Home Administrators and being named a board member to the National Association of Boards of Examiners for Nursing Homes.

Today, said their daughter Judy Normann, the Kellers’ health care operations employ more than 250 people.

“In a day and age of these corporate giants that take over and run these nursing homes, he had employees that had been there for 20 years or more,” said Keller’s grandson, former Lee County Commissioner Jamie Kelly. “They treated their people right and their patients right. It’s a family business that cares about people.”

Keller’s name will also be familiar to locals for being on the U.S. 421 Bypass, officially known as the Oscar Keller Jr. Highway, since it opened in 2008. More recently, a new construction at Central Carolina Community College was named the Oscar A. Keller Jr. and Elderlene R. Keller Health Sciences Building in their honor.

Keller was also a force in politics across the state, according to his grandson.

“He was a big Democrat, but politicians on both sides of the aisle knew him and respected him as someone who loved his community and always tried to do the right thing,” Kelly said. “He died peacefully in his sleep, at home, surrounded by his family. I don’t think you could ask for a better life.”

A funeral will be held 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 25, at St. Luke Methodist Church in Sanford. A celebration of life will follow.

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