Catawba student touched many lives

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 24, 2011

By Shelley Smith
SALISBURY — In her 28 years of life, Julie Keels had accomplished a lot.
Keels traveled across the nation and world for various mission trips, taught Vacation Bible School at First Baptist Church, studied photography at Randolph Community College and film at the North Carolina School of the Arts. And come May, she would have been a year away from a sociology degree at Catawba College.
Through her childhood, later travels and studies, Keels touched the lives and hearts of everyone she met, friends say, and her death Tuesday, they say, is shocking.
Keels died Tuesday night from injuries in a March 18 wreck, holding on for four days in the intensive care unit at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.
The wreck last Friday happened at 8 a.m. as Keels was traveling on Old Mocksville Road near Hawkinstown Road and she passed someone in a no passing zone traveling at 69 mph, a police report said.
Keels passed the vehicle but overcorrected to the right, and then overcorrected to the left, crossing the center line.
As she was traveling across the line, the car was sliding and struck a mailbox and telephone pole, then rolled over twice down an embankment and Keels was thrown through the windshield of her Ford Explorer. She was not wearing her seatbelt.
Her injuries were critical, and she was flown to Baptist with severe head trauma and other injuries. According to a Facebook post by her father, Steven Keels, Julie passed away shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday, with her family by her side.
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Keels grew up in Salisbury, attending First Baptist Church, going to church camps and serving others on mission trips.
Jonathan Garrigues’ grandparents lived near Keels’ home off Old Mocksville Road, and he was also one of her best friends.
“We used to ride dirt bikes together,” he said. “I’ll never forget one time she was on the back of my bike and we hit this huge hole and she flew off.
“Whenever somebody dies, you start remembering every little thing you ever did with them.”
Garrigues said Keels was a tough girl, but she had a huge heart, and she “loved life and wore her emotions on her sleeve.”
“She was such an awesome girl,” he said, “the type of person who is not afraid to laugh at the top of her lungs. She had the kind of infectious laugh that made everybody else laugh with her.”
Garrigues said her mother, Phyllis, and brother, Alan, were “both awesome,” and that Keels loved them very much.
Salisbury native Christi Stokes remembers Keels from their years together working at the Salisbury Mall, where each of their parents worked. “Her smile would light up anywhere,” she says, “her laugh was one of a kind.
“Out of all my friends I have never seen her have a bad day or complain. If she was, she didn’t tell of it.”
Patrick Prejusa met Keels when he worked at a cinema in Winston-Salem, where Keels worked while she was at the N.C. School of the Arts.
Several years ago Prejusa reconnected with Keels when he needed a photographer for some of his independent web series and films.
“She always brought great photos,” he said, and even helped out filling in on camera.
“We shot last year in August, at an office location, and we needed an actress to fill in the shot, and she did really good,” he said. “I was actually blown away. It was my full intention to keep using her for all of (her) talents.”
In fact, the two had been exchanging e-mails the past week discussing how Prejusa had received a spam e-mail from her promoting Viagra, and also asked her about her shooting a new feature film he was working on.
“The last e-mail I got from her was (last) Thursday night, saying, ‘Hey, call me,’ ” he said. “And I e-mailed her back that Friday and I didn’t even know it was that following Friday that she had had that wreck.
“Every once in a while we sort of disappeared and reappeared in each other’s lives … I can honestly say I can’t think of a single negative thing about her. Nothing about her was bad. Nothing about her was negative. Everything about her was pure positivity. It’s beyond words to say she’s going to be missed.”
Keels’ best friend, Alexis Stephens, attended the N.C. School of the Arts with Keels, and grew with her throughout her life. She posted a picture of the two of them posing with two other North Rowan High School classmates at their senior prom onto the Facebook page she created following the wreck, “Thoughts and Prayers for Julie.” The Facebook group continues to grow in numbers — from 390 members Monday to nearly 600.
Friends and classmates, those who remember Keels brewing their coffee at the various coffee shops she worked at around town, continue to post memories of Keels, and are all kind and heart warming.
“Julie was an amazing woman,” Stephens said. “She was a truly genuine and vibrant person. Her openness, intellect, beauty and fun-loving personality made so many people fall in love with her and cherish their relationship with her.”
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A memorial service will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Salisbury, and afterwards the family will receive friends. The burial will be private.
Catawba College has coordinated a college bus that will transport anyone from campus to the service Friday, and Chaplain and Senior Vice President, Dr. Ken Clapp, and Dean of Students, Ben Smith, traveled to Baptist Monday to visit with Keels’ family.
A memorial table was also set up Wednesday afternoon for people to share condolences, memories and messages for the Keels family.
Keels’ sociology professor, Carla Eastis, says the class will be left with a “pretty big gap,” now that she’s gone.
“She was just very comfortable expressing herself, very comfortable joining in on things,” Eastis said. “She was very independent-minded. That was in her classwork and kind of the way she moved around in the hallways.
“It was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got my own drummer, I can hear it even though you can’t.’ ”