October 29, 2020

Deborah and Bill Keyes stand with their horse, Casey, whose Aggieland medical history inspired them to bequest their 2,500-acre Hill Country ranch to Texas A&M.
Photo by Bill Sallans.

Casey, a Rocky Mountain gelding with a sleek, chocolate coat and luxurious caramel-colored mane, is known for his intelligence, his listening skills and his preference for margaritas. Deborah and Bill Keyes have doted for decades on their equine companion, whose physical beauty is eclipsed only by the power of his magnetic personality.

“Casey’s not just a horse. He’s an amazing persona. You can talk to him like an old friend,” said Deborah, as the couple stood by the fence and called him over.

“He’s strong willed, but gentle. Definitely the alpha of the barn,” Bill added.

“And I’m his favorite bartender,” Deborah joked, providing Casey with his occasional cocktail in a frosty, salt-rimmed glass.

Casey and Bill have been inseparable for 20 years, so when Casey fell sick in 2010, Bill was quick to notice. First the horse was simply lethargic, but he soon developed lameness in his front left leg. The Keyes brought him to a local vet who diagnosed Casey with pigeon fever, a serious bacterial infection common to horses.

Diagnosing the problem was far easier than treating it. Their veterinarian recommended that the Keyes make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to bring Casey to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, where equine specialists offer the latest in treatment options.

Dr. Keith Chaffin '90 diagnosed Casey and called on Dr. Carolyn Arnold to perform the surgery that saved his life.

When they arrived in College Station, Dr. Keith Chaffin ’90, associate department head for clinical programs and professor of equine internal medicine, examined Casey. Advanced diagnostic imaging showed that the bacterial infection had created an abscess in the horse’s axillary region adjacent to the elbow joint, where the foreleg meets the body. Dr. Chaffin knew who to call for the tricky surgery on which Casey’s recovery depended: his partner, Dr. Carolyn Arnold, associate professor of veterinary surgery in large animal clinical sciences, who specializes in equine soft tissue surgery.

The treatment saved Casey’s life and earned Bill and Deborah’s eternal gratitude. During the next few years, the couple developed a love for Aggieland and the incredible work of Drs. Chaffin and Arnold and their colleagues, especially after they rescued Casey a second time in 2019 when he developed severe pneumonia and recovered in College Station for six months. “It was like his health spa,” Deborah laughed, noting that veterinary students even made Casey a carrot cake birthday treat when he turned 24 in their care.

Slowly, a dream began to take shape as the Keyes contemplated using their ranch to support future equine veterinary research and patient care at Texas A&M. For 40 years, the 2,500 acres of rolling hills overlooking the Pedernales River bottom just outside of Austin has been Bill’s refuge. Deborah joined him on the idyllic plot of pastureland in 2005, their shared love of trail riding cementing their relationship. They built a Spanish-style ranch house and a riding arena where they love to entertain. It is a stunning piece of property, from the waterfalls and wildflowers to the live oaks and Texas Longhorn cattle. Riding across the range on horseback to watch the sunset soak the waving grasses in molten light feels like time travel, as if you could keep riding beyond the horizon to the Wild West frontier of the past.

The Keyes hated the thought that someday when they were gone, the Eden they spent decades lovingly tending might be sold to real estate developers who would parcel it off for profit. They began working with the Texas A&M Foundation to discover if there was a way to keep the ranch intact by directing it to the Foundation for educational purposes at the university.

The Keyes' legacy gift will support educational advancement in many areas including equine research.

The Foundation accepts real estate assets through several gift methods, including outright gifts, bequests, retained life estates and charitable remainder unitrusts. Most of these modalities require selling the asset to fund and support donors’ passions at Texas A&M, even if that property may have educational programmatic possibilities for the university. However, with the support of Texas A&M, the Foundation recently created a first-of-its-kind, visionary gift model allowing qualifying properties with strong future appreciation projections to be held for potential programmatic use for a minimum of 20 years. The Keyes Ranch is the first property accepted into the program. After Deborah and Bill’s lifetimes, the ranch will be available to Texas A&M for a variety of educational purposes for at least 20 years. If after that time it is no longer feasible for use by the university, it may be sold and the income used to advance equine veterinary research and patient care, honoring the efforts of Drs. Chaffin and Arnold.

The couple’s planned gift has marked one of the largest contributions to the university’s Lead by Example campaign—Texas A&M’s commitment to achieving one of the nation’s most ambitious higher education fundraising goals: raising $4 billion by the end of 2020 to create a brighter future for Aggieland.

Providing a gift for equine veterinary research has been a longtime goal for Deborah, who has dedicated much of her life to the care of horses. “We are thrilled that at the end of our lives, Texas A&M will have this,” said Deborah with a wide smile, gesturing to the surrounding hills. “We need more great veterinarians to get connected to this area.” The couple is happy to know that their ranch will be used to train the next generation of young people who will learn to love the land and care for its creatures as they do.

In the meantime, the Keyes are looking forward to the changing seasons on the ranch. Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year there, with its profusion of wildflowers and migrating birds. It’s the perfect time to saddle up with a friend like Casey and enjoy the sunrise in a special place.  

To learn how you can give a planned gift of real estate, contact Tim Walton ’90 by completing the form below. Interested in using other assets to commit a planned gift to Texas A&M? Email Angela Throne ’03 at giftplanning@txamfoundation.com.  

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