The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

From the Vault of Art Shay: The Legend of Bo Keeley Grows

By Art Shay in News on Dec 14, 2011 7:00PM

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. In this week's look at his photography archives, Art reflects on a dear friend he thought was missing and presumed dead.)

The city- and state-wide racquetball champions of Syracuse, Albany ,Minneapolis and St. Paul all shared the same humiliating experience: They confidently got on the court before an audience of their friends and fans, warmed up in their fashion sweats swinging hundred-buck Wilson racquets sending the not-too-bouncy green Seamco balls of their era caroming around the 20-by-40 foot courts when their
challenger appeared: Bo Keeley.

Bo — short for "Hobo" — was in his mid-20s, sporting possibly amplified blonde curls, was movie star handsome at 23 and built like the proverbial Greek god. Spectators and players alike didn't know what to make of his tatterdemalion shorts and t-shirt, and suddenly half the audience was pointing at his Keds high-top sneakers: one red and the other blue.

His "racquet" was an Ace Hardware frying pan. He began hitting his practice ball with the flawless form of the player ranked up there with Marty Hogan and Charlie Brumstein — the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the sport. And the crowd quickly got used to the ping-and-sizzle sound of his kill shots as they swiftly decimated each of the municipal champions. His smile was of bemusement, not mockery. Every now and then he would stop to tell an opponent how to improve his return.

Bo was a teacher from the beginning. His main subject? Veterinary medicine, as his doctor's degree from Michigan State in 1972 averred. His main interest was another matter.

Writing Keeley's story a few years ago for the back page of the New York Sunday Times, I struck a snag. The editor I was working with couldn't be nicer. She had faith in me since I had done a back page on my own heart surgery a couple of years earlier, even doing the pictures until I went under. She'd said it was the "warmest, most human piece they had ever run on that sacred back page." So here I was doing an "as told to" story on my friend of 30 years, Bo, and she was having trouble. Or her boss was, not believing Bo's father, an atomic scientist, had moved the family 15 times before he got to high school; that he'd helped invent Paddleball with the great financier-athlete Vic Niederhoffer, had won 7 national singles racquetball titles, defeated Hogan and Brumfield on the pro racquetball tour, and was just back from a hobo rail trip from South America where he had run a clinic for the continent's best players.

He had, meanwhile, become the owner of Service Press, a small publisher, and bicycled from San Diego to Detroit, then from Canada to Mexico, keeping a colorful diary all the way that resulted in 6 books and 50 magazine articles. I photographed him for Sports Illustrated in 1977, when he was sleeping in a coffin to get the experience of death. He toured the country in a jalopy around this time, with two big dogs and a giant fake rabbit for some reason. ("A great way to meet kooky girls," he explained.) He told me when he was 9 and decided to dig a hole in his backyard of the moment and get to China, his mother encouraged him by packing a lunch to share with any hungry Chinese he met on his dig.

By 1998 Bo had somehow traveled to and through 95 countries as a railroad hobo. He had only been robbed ten times, hospitalized once. His one failure in life came when he was hired by Vic Niederhoffer as a commodities adviser. Everyone had faith in him: Vic on his penchant for casing local economics; the New Yorker's John Cassidy noted this venture had cost Vic at least a half million.

I had faith in Keeley as a healer. His latest book, Keeley's Kures, is selling well on Amazon. He healed an errant muscle in my eye by raising my computer screen eight inches — "You can cure yourself by looking up" he said, — and was right. This one knocked my socks off.And I've been grateful to the student osteopath ever since. He set me on the hard floor and supported the back of my head with two index finger.... you get the idea. His next book is on hoboing for executives.

By 1999 Bo had hiked the lengths of Florida,Colorado,Baja,Vermont "and others". By 2006 he had become a school teacher and college tutor in Blythe, CA and conducted executive hobo trips.

My hook for the Times was that Bo had bought 11 desert acres at the confluence of California and Mexico about a mile from the Cocoa Mountain Gunnery Range, where the Air Force and Navy train fighter pilots. He dug a ten-foot hole in the ground, its three dirt walls full of barking geckos, sidewinders and other small beasties that Bo gave names. A concupiscient gecko he named after movie star Michael Douglas, and Bo would sometimes invite female hobos to stay overnight and watch the talented lizard perform. One lady hobo was thrilled by the mating of two praying mantises getting off — or nearly — on the fact that when the male had his orgasm, the female waited a decent interval before devouring him.

"That's how our lovers should be treated," she affirmed.

Keeley installed some rain-catching water tanks and a single solar panel that powered his single bulb and charged his portable computer. On one wall he had a long shelf housing his voluminous notebooks: A goldmine for a young biographer.

Two days ago I began getting inquiries about Bo's whereabouts. He hadn't been heard from in two months. I had gotten him involved with, and they hadn't received answers to their queries on stories he has submitted... for two months.

Rip Mackenzie, a Canadian racquetball champ and editor, started the queries to Bo's friends, including me. I spoke to Vic Niederhoffer, who's a fan of my books and blogs, and who asked with disbelief: "Bo told me you beat him two out of three games in Ann Arbor when you were shooting him for SI. Is this true?"

"Did he also tell you he had OD'ed on 5 bagels before we started playing?" I said. "No," said Vic, relieved. (I think.) I told him my favorite memory of that day: An airline stewardess on the balcony started yelling to seven or eight sisters of the air on another court: "Everyone c'mere! There's a chubby little guy in his fifties beating the shit out of Keeley!" We soon had a crowd.

So for three days until this morning, I was in mourning for my old pal Bo. My right hand lady Erica sadly dug out Keeley pictures for me to use, and I had the dull ache of his last message from Sumatra: "Going to Mexico and Guatemala, and riding this one train north to sneak back into the States with a bunch of illegals..."

I knew he had a computer and camera and some cash with him. I couldn't even imagine he'd be murdered en route.

Then, this morning, there was the note from Rip Mackenzie: "Bo made it home last night!" I don't have any details yet, but after all of the above, and my pictures, you can imagine how it went. Bo even sent a picture of himself on what looks like the Rio Grande.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.