The new guy on the seventh floor of City Hall is an athlete, an antiques buff, an intellectual, a self-described “weird kid” who gravitated to American history and policy. He calls himself a “sponge,” the way his brain soaks up information.
“Sometimes,” Devyn Keith laughs, “that’s good, sometimes that’s bad.”
Keith is a Huntsville City Council Member at age 28, having won the first election in which he ever competed. Nope, not even some race for middle-school class treasurer on his resume.
He sits in his seventh-floor office, taking Casual Friday at its word. He’s in jeans and a baseball-style T-shirt with #THEMOVEMENT lettered on the front. Resting on the corner table at which he sits is a distressed-metal piece of artwork that reads “Huntsville,” something he found while scrounging through an antique show in Nashville.
In a 30-minute conversation, Keith quotes Hubert Humphrey, Thurgood Marshall, Bobby Seale and Dr. Martin Luther King. He espouses the benefits of football, praises his predecessor, explains the “conglomerate” that was his upbringing and speaks with excitement about an impending move.
“He’s so full of energy,” Mayor Tommy Battle says. “He’s going to be great for District 1 and for the whole community.”
I know I want to help north Huntsville. And I want to help the city that’s the best this side of heaven, and that’s Huntsville.”
Keith certainly didn’t see life leading him to this office. But a dissertation he wrote for his Masters in public policy and administration while in the University of Massachusetts lit the spark. It was a study of northwest Huntsville, with its transition and economic challenges and stagnation.
“That led me to ask, ‘Are we doing everything we can? Are we 10 years ahead of where we need to be 10 years from now?” he says.
Keith won the District 1 seat from Dr. Richard Showers, for whom he has great praise.
“Dr. Showers got in (politics) at a time when it wasn’t necessarily popular, but it was a necessity,” Keith says. “To that, I hold him in high regard. My hat goes off to somebody at that early time, before a black president, before the shift that urged people to get involved, he got involved.”
Keith was born in Huntsville just about the same time Dr. Showers joined the council. He was raised by a single mom, Darlene Sanford, now working at Columbia High as a special ed teacher, who had special instincts as a parent.
“She understood her own limitations and she identified her strengths,” Keith says. “She did everything she could to help me with the things she could, and the things where she knew I needed help, she sought the right help.” Thus the takes-a-village conglomeration that helped shape his life.
Among that conglomeration was an uncle, Keith Humphrey, a star at Lee High who became a two-time All-America linebacker at North Alabama. After Keith’s mother explained she’d not be able to afford college tuition, Humphrey urged him to work toward a football scholarship.
“I was blessed to have two good careers, at Sparkman and at Samford. I never broke a bone, never got injured, never missed a play,” Keith says. “I walked away from the game knowing it paid for school. I went to the greatest school in Alabama and I made great friends all for the cost of nothing except physical activity. Football was the vehicle that got me out of my situation.”
Keith is truly immersing himself in his district. He jokes that “more people in District 1 changed my diapers than my mother did,” and he will even more solidify his roots there by living for a year in each of four different areas.
He’s moving into new digs in Terry Heights next week, having been challenged during the campaign by a resident who said, “I don’t see anybody coming to Terry Heights until it’s election time. And you’re only here for three months and you disappear.”
The moves from Terry Heights to other neighborhoods in comings years will be easy enough for Keith, who is single and not that far removed from his college days. “Just a futon and a TV set,” he describes his possessions.
“It’s going to be an experience. But I think it’s necessary. You’re taking City Hall to everybody’s front door. What does it mean (for citizens) to have the ability to have an elected official and go knock on his door?” he says. “How does that change the perception (of City Hall). This isn’t an ivory tower.”
Keith is not sure what that “sponge of a brain … will lead me to be. I know I want to help north Huntsville. And I want to help the city that’s the best this side of heaven, and that’s Huntsville.”