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News & Press: In Memoriam

John W. “Sam” Keltner: A Biography

Monday, September 4, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Christina Yoshimura
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By Larry Godwin

Via writing, teaching, and facilitating the processes of cooperation, John "Sam" Keltner devoted his life to furthering peace, understanding, and collaboration through interpersonal communication.[1] He was born June 20, 1918[2] and, at age 86, died January 13, 2005.[1]

Keltner published eight books in the fields of interpersonal and group communication; dispute resolution, arbitration and mediation; and sensitivity training. He also created five video productions.[3] His first book, Group Discussion Processes, which debuted in 1957, examined the interaction dynamics of groups three years before David Berlo’s acclaimed Process of Communication. Keltner’s first book on interpersonal communication, Interpersonal Speech Communication, Elements and Structures, appeared in 1969, two years before the wave of interpersonal texts began.[4] His books found use worldwide, some as university texts.[1]

His writing influenced other scholars. For example, fifteen authors cited his 1989 paper “Facilitation: Catalyst for Group Problem Solving,”[10] which appeared in the Management Communication Quarterly.[11]

Keltner earned his Bachelor of Education Degree in social science, speech, education, and psychology, and the Phi Kappa Delta Honorary Forensic Society Degree of Special Distinction, both at Illinois State Normal University. He began his lifelong teaching career at Lincoln Junior High School in Oak Park, Ill., and later taught at Pekin High School in Pekin. Subsequently Keltner earned his Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in speech at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He then taught and was Director of Forensics at Iowa State Teachers College; taught at the University of Oklahoma; and chaired the Speech Department at Kansas State University.[1]

In 1958 Keltner resigned from Kansas State rather than follow orders to fire a professor suspected of being gay. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service immediately hired him as a mediator in St. Louis, Mo., then sent him to Washington, D.C., to train mediators nationwide.[1]

In 1963 Keltner became chair of the Department of Speech Communication at Oregon State University in Corvallis. There he created numerous classes and supported a student who sparked intense group dynamics and attracted national attention by attending another professor’s group processes class covered in a black bag.[1]

Keltner was involved in early inquiries into group dynamics at the National Training Laboratory in Group Development[11] and cofounded the Human Relations Training Laboratory.[12]

For 22 years from 1971-1992, while teaching at OSU and after he retired, Keltner conducted annual, week-long intensive summer workshops in Interpersonal and Small Group Communication through his nonprofit corporation, SAIC. All but three took place at the Menucha Conference Center, a sanctuary in the Columbia River Gorge near Portland.[5] These workshops, which grew out of the classes he taught, developed a national reputation for their innovative integration of laboratory teaching and learning.[4]

From 1952-1953 Keltner performed the duties of President of the Central States Speech Association. In 1972 he served as President of the Western States Communication Association and in 1996, received that organization’s Distinguished Service Award.[4] When presenting him that honor, the WSCA spokesman quoted from several letters of nomination that confirmed the impact Keltner had on the communication discipline. These included the following: “For a number of years his writing virtually defined this young and very rapidly growing part of our field.” “His career has been varied and his influence on careers and lives, profound.”[6]

Keltner, along with Loraine Halfen Zephyr, coined the key psychological term “spiritual child,” a metaphor for an interpersonal relationship. A couple’s coming together results in the birth of their spiritual child, which requires continuing care and nurture.[7]

In his later professional years, Keltner’s major contributions lay in bargaining, mediation, and arbitration, an area in which he was active until just before his death.[4] A desire to settle disputes amicably led him in 1961 to establish his business, Consulting Associates. A charter member of the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution, in 1991 he received the Twenty Year Distinguished Service and the Outstanding Contribution Awards.[2] He was a founding member, frequent contributor, and guiding force in the establishment, development, and growth of the Peace and Conflict Division of the National Communication Association.[8]

In 1986 Keltner retired from OSU, which named him Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication. He continued writing and worked to establish and support local neighborhood, small claims, and child custody mediation. He arbitrated labor disputes and facilitated the Corvallis First Alternative Cooperative Board.[1] In 1992 he helped form the Neighborhood Dispute Resolution Program, where he worked as mediator.[13,14] He also served on the board of Community Outreach, supporting the availability of basic services[1] to people of all backgrounds, with all kinds of problems, and in any language.[9]


1.  Corvallis Gazette Times, Obituary for John Keltner, , January 21, 2005

2.  Keltner's Celebration of Life program, February 19, 2005

3.  WorldCat Identities, Keltner, John W.,

4.  WSCA News, 2005 Archive, Western States Communication Association, "A Personal Remembrance by Dave Natharius, former WSCA President,"

5.  SAIC, Inc., Effective Communication Workshop Announcement, August 16-22, 1992

6.  Honoring Keltner, WSCA Distinguished Service Award Speech: 1996,

7.  Commentary on the instructor's manual for the sixth edition of A First Look at Communication Theory,

8.  Program abstract from the 2005 NCA convention,

9.  Community Outreach Inc., About Us:

10. Semantic Scholar,

11. Semantic Scholar,

12. Department of Speech Communication, Oregon State University, Self Awareness and Interpersonal Communication Processes Workshop Announcement, June 11-17, 1978.

13. Corvallis Gazette-Times, “At Our Best: Sam Keltner,” August 23, 1998.

14. Corvallis Gazette-Times, “Mediation Receives Push,” March 3, 1992. 

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