Charles “Biff” Keyes (1937-2022)

Charles “Biff” Keyes (1937-2022)

Former Association for Asian Studies President Charles “Biff” Keyes, a longtime faculty member at the University of Washington, passed away early in 2022. The memorial post below has been submitted to #AsiaNow by the University of Washington Southeast Asia Center.

It is with great sadness that the University of Washington Southeast Asia Center announces the passing of their former Center Director, Professor Charles “Biff” Keyes, who passed away on January 3, 2022 after many years of courageously facing the increasing disability caused by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Keyes was the founder of the Southeast Asia Center and directed it from 1986-1997. He was a scholar of Thailand who devoted substantial energies to building a robust program of Southeast Asian Studies on the University of Washington campus. He and his wife Jane have contributed generously to the program through the Charles and Jane Keyes Endowed Fund in Southeast Asia Studies, which supports student travel to Southeast Asia. Keyes continued to support Center activities into retirement in numerous ways, including the compilation of a valuable history of the UW Southeast Asia Center, which you will find on their website.

From his position in the Department of Anthropology as a scholar of Thailand, a post he held since the 1970s (and as Chair from 1985-90), Biff Keyes, along with Dan Lev, Charlie Hirschman, and Karl Hutterer set about establishing UW as one of only a handful of centers with a focus on Southeast Asian Studies in the United States.

With the assistance of grants from the Ford Foundation and from the Henry Luce Foundation Southeast Asia initiative, Keyes was instrumental in enabling the UW Southeast Asia Center’s recognition as a federal Title VI Center. Initially Keyes worked closely with Gerald Fry at the University of Oregon to establish the Northwest Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies (NWCSEA), which also included the Canadian Universities of British Columbia and Victoria. The Consortium was successful in securing Title VI funds for several funding cycles before the UW Southeast Asia Center was funded as a single institutional grantee.

Keyes’s success in promoting Southeast Asian Studies in the Pacific Northwest was based not just on the strength of his scholarship—a long and productive scholarly record attested to elsewhere in the obituaries that have followed his death—but by his tireless commitment to service at the university and to the professional field of Southeast Asian Studies. During his long career, Keyes was an influential voice in the academic Asia programming of both the Ford Foundation and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). At the SSRC, he was instrumental in expanding their interest to Viet Nam, a country in which he then took a great interest, serving as academic director of the SSRC Indochina program for some years. Through his work with Ford and SSRC, Keyes played an influential role in promoting social science methods and training within Viet Nam as well as Laos. In these capacities, he was responsible for securing funding for a generation of social science scholars from Viet Nam, as well as from Thailand, who trained under him at UW. His influence among the ranks of academic, as well as the government and NGO worlds, within Viet Nam and Thailand cannot be overestimated. His service to Southeast Asian Studies was recognized nationally with his election as President of the Association for Asian Studies in 2001. At the University of Washington, he worked closely with the UW Press and with Laurie Sears and Vince Rafael to establish and take the editorial lead in a new press series, Critical Dialogs in Southeast Asian Studies. He was also a great supporter of the UW Libraries, donating over 4,000 volumes, films and manuscripts to make the UW one of the strongest Thai collections in the country, and ensuring that his research notes and his and Jane’s photographs were digitized and made available for research through the Libraries website.

Most of all, Biff Keyes will be remembered by his 45 Ph.D. students, for whom he was a supportive and beloved mentor. Besides a festschrift in his honor, Ethnicity, Borders, and the Grassroots Interface with the State: Studies on Mainland Southeast Asia in Honor of Charles F. Keyes, published in 2014 and edited by John Marston, Keyes was honored by the UW in 2003 with the University’s Graduate Mentoring Award. He made UW a preeminent destination for students seeking training in Southeast Asian Studies, and he tirelessly and generously promoted Thai and Viet Nam Studies and Southeast Asian Studies more generally. His influence, from the highest perches of our profession to the smallest, most personal gestures of mentoring, caring, and connecting, is too immense to capture in a few sentences here. We all are deeply in his debt.

The obituary shared by Biff Keyes’s family can be found here.