SALT LAKE CITY — Elder Von G. Keetch, who helped manage some of the LDS Church's major controversies for more than two decades and served as one of the faith's general authorities, died suddenly on Friday night at age 57 in Salt Lake City.
Family, friends and colleagues expressed anguish over the jarring loss of a religious liberty expert whom they described as a humble and kind father, husband and friend and one of the leading constitutional lawyers in the country.
"I couldn't have been more devastated and stunned," a sobbing Randy Austin said of learning that he'd lost the man who first had been his official mentor at the Salt Lake law firm of Kirton McConkie and then became his close friend.
Elder Keetch helped shape the legal strategy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1995-2015, from writing and overseeing legal briefs filed in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court to managing trial lawyers he helped hire to represent the faith in its most significant legal disputes across the country, including Judge Kenneth Starr's successful defense of Prop 8.
Since 2015, Elder Keetch had been serving as a General Authority Seventy of the church and executive director of its Public Affairs Department, helping to shape media, government, community and interfaith relations for the church.
"Von is a recognized expert in constitutional law and especially the First Amendment, and especially within that, the religion clauses of the First Amendment," said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the LDS Church and an emeritus General Authority Seventy.
Elder Keetch's legal credentials included clerking for two U.S. Supreme Court justices, but Elder Wickman said it was his legal abilities combined with a native humility and warmth that drew people to him and made him a more effective attorney and church representative.
On Thursday night during a family outing in Pleasant Grove, Elder Keetch began to cough up blood, said his daughter, Steffani Keetch Dastrup. Doctors at American Fork Hospital found that his left lung had collapsed. They sedated and ventilated him, then transferred him to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, where he died about 9:40 p.m. Friday.
Dastrup said his death appeared to be the result of complications from previous battles with cancer and a recent respiratory infection in his lungs.
"It's been a shock," she said. "We believed he was doing so well. We thought these were tiny complications. We're definitely, definitely shocked it happened like this and so quickly."
Elder Keetch was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and doctors removed the lower lobe of his left lung after the cancer spread several years later, but he had not had an incident for about a year. He, his family and friends thought he was healthy and strong.
On Wednesday, he attended a Public Affairs Committee meeting in his role as executive director. The managing director of Public Affairs, Rick Turley, also attended the meeting.
"We're all shocked by the suddenness of his death," Turley said. "He seemed vigorous and vibrant. … "We'll miss him greatly."
When Elder Keetch was called as a general authority in 2015, Elder Wickman selected two attorneys at Kirton McConkie to take over his tasks. They felt they had big shoes to fill.
"My friend Alexander Dushku and I used to say that we both had two feet in one of his shoes and there was still lots of space between our toes and the end of the shoe," Austin said.
Elder Wickman said Elder Keetch could have written his ticket to the most lucrative jobs at the most prominent law firms after he graduated with political science and law degrees from BYU and clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and Justice Antonin Scalia.
Instead, he accepted an offer from the late Bill Kirton, who then was the church's general counsel at Kirton McConkie. Elder Wickman said the decision was made by Elder Keetch and his wife, his high school sweetheart Bernice, after fasting and prayer.
"Kirton McConkie had the one thing that mattered to Von," Elder Wickman said. "It served the church, and in his mind therefore it was serving the Lord. In my opinion, that was a decision which has had very significant benefits to the church in the service he has rendered over the years."
After late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley made the general counsel role an in-house position and selected Elder Wickman for it in 1995, Elder Wickman picked Elder Keetch, who remained at Kirton McConkie, to function in the role of helping him with the "big-ticket controversies the church faces."
"Not only did he help me with lawsuits confronting the church and helped us identify the right counsel to represent us in particular locales and worked with them," Elder Wickman said, "but as this whole subject of religious liberty gained a profile with the events that have transpired in our society and culture, Von assumed an ever-increasingly important role in helping us work through those issues and work with others."
The two men were eyewitnesses to the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon. They watched from a taxi as an airliner flew into the building.
"We watched the last four or five seconds of that doomed flight," Elder Wickman said. "We watched it plow into the Pentagon and erupt in an enormous fireball."
Elder Keetch was Scalia's clerk when the justice wrote the majority opinion in Smith v. Employment Division, one of the defining decisions governing religious liberty over the past 30 years.
"He managed the trial lawyers who tried cases for the church and was remarkable at that," Austin said, "but his primary role, the one he continued to fulfill even as a general authority, was charting a course for protecting religious liberty in a changing world."
That is a subject of pride for his six children, Dastrup said, and will be for their six grandchildren and a seventh that is on the way.
"One of the coolest parts for us was to not only see how much he loved the church and believed in the things the church was doing," she said, "but also that he wanted to defend and support all churches and all religious beliefs and all people's rights to believe and act the way they feel is right. That was a big part of his work."
Elder Keetch built relationships with attorneys for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and others. Elder Wickman said it was Elder Keetch's qualities and friendships that helped the LDS Church develop a close relationship with Judge Kenneth Starr, who then successfully argued on behalf of Proposition 8 before the California Supreme Court.
A federal court overturned that ruling, but Elder Wickman said the story "is an illustration of the power of the combination of Von's qualities as a brilliant lawyer well-informed in the constitutional law and the precedents with his native warmth, humility and collaborative qualities that just drew others to him."
Those qualities made it natural for his colleagues to tease him when one author called him the Darth Vader of the church's legal Death Star. Since then, Kirton McConkie lawyers had showered him with Darth Vader-related gifts.
"It was hilarious," Austin said, "because you couldn't find anyone with less Darth Vader in him."
Elder Keetch, born in Provo on March 17, 1960, played basketball at Pleasant Grove High School. He continued to play basketball with Austin and their sons. The Austins, with former BYU basketball player Nate Austin, regularly won. That led to a lot of humor, Randy Austin said.
"He used to say, 'Why don't you let me win? I'm your boss, and I could fire you.' I told him that when he did finally win, he'd get more satisfaction out of it."
Elder Keetch also teased Austin, "I taught you everything you know, just not everything I know."
Dastrup said her dad's humor was great, but corny. She said he was a good husband and father with a special talent for detailed organization of family activities and being able to work and travel a lot while being fully present with his family all of the time. He also was legendary at offering good advice.
"That's what I'll miss the most," Dastrup said, "is calling him and asking him what he thinks about something."
Elder Keetch delivered a single general conference talk as a general authority, but he told a memorable story about an encounter with American surfers angry about a mesh barrier that barred them from attacking magnificent, crashing waves at an Australian beach. A local man came along and showed them through binoculars that sharks were circling just outside the barrier.
He likened God's commandments to the barriers.
"As we stood on that beautiful beach, our perspective had suddenly changed," Elder Keetch said. "A barrier that had seemed rigid and restrictive — that seemed to curtail the fun and excitement of riding the really big waves — had become something very different. With our new understanding of the danger that lurked just below the surface, the barrier now offered protection, safety and peace."
Dastrup said the family experienced peace in the hospital after Elder Keetch's passing. His funeral will be Friday, she said. Details are pending.