WESTFIELD — Imagine going through your life not knowing any blood relatives.
That was the question Keith Hertell, a 53-year resident of Westfield, raised when sitting down to an interview with The Westfield Leader one sunny summer morning at his office on Elm Street in town.
For Mr. Hertell, the question is not a hypothetical one, but rather the reality he has grappled with throughout his life, especially as a kid growing up on Long Island, and as a young man at the University of Maryland, where he played as a defenseman for the Maryland Terrapins NCAA soccer team.
Approximately 10 years ago, according to Mr. Hertell, he began a quest to learn more about the biological family he never knew using 23andMe, a genetic-tracing service.
But it is impossible to discuss Keith Hertell without mentioning the mark he has made on the Westfield community. At age 78, his list of accomplishments spans youth sports, charity, Wall Street and his cherished role as a family man.
Mr. Hertell came to Westfield nearly 53 years ago after marrying his late wife, Kathleen, who died a few years ago at the age of 73.
Along with his new bride, Mr. Hertell brought to Westfield his love of soccer. With the community known as a “football town,” noted Mr. Hertell, he was not one to sit idly by. He founded the Westfield Soccer Association and expanded the soccer footprint in his new town.
That was only the start. Mr. Hertell would go on to coach both boys’ and girls’ youth soccer, taking his teams to Europe for tournaments and introducing a style of play that went beyond casual suburban athletics to competitive traveling sports common in 2021. He would go on to coach the Central Jersey Select, a traveling soccer team that won the Westfield Cup 10 times, noted Mr. Hertell.
His love of sports, and a coaching career that spanned 46 years, was only one side of a man who embodies the virtues of community involvement and service to others. Mr. Hertell also sat on the Westfield Board of Education for three years in the mid-90s.
Moreover, his résumé includes being president of the board of trustees of the New Jersey Festival Orchestra and a member of the Overlook Hospital Foundation Board of Trustees. Mr. Hertell also is the founding board chair of Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss.
Ultimately, at his core, Mr. Hertell is a family man. With wife Kathleen he had two sons and a daughter, Darren, Keith II and Kerry. And while a luminary for many in town, his life has not been without loss and sadness.
Mr. Hertell was with Imagine, A Center for Coping with Loss from the beginning, but when initially approached to be part of this organization, he declined. It was because of a personal tragedy in his own life, in 1997, when he lost his son Keith Hertell II in a car accident.
“The reason was him,” Mr. Hertell said, pointing to a picture of his late son that hangs in his office, when speaking to The Westfield Leader. “My son was killed when he was 25, and it tore my heart out. I didn’t want to go through that again.”
But it was not in his nature to do nothing.
“I don’t know how, or what, or when,” he said, explaining that he woke up one night spurred to accept the responsibility of helping Imagine get started. “How selfish can I be?” Mr. Hertell asked himself at the time. “If I help people and prevent what I’ve gone through, I’ll do it.”
Mr. Hertell went on to become the board chairman of Imagine, playing a pivotal role in an organization that to this day helps grieving children and families.
And years later, it was the impulse to help others, specifically those who struggle with their identity as an adopted person, that, according to Mr. Hertell, pushed him to sit down for an interview and talk about his own experiences of never knowing a blood relation until his children were born.
From a very young age, Mr. Hertell knew he was adopted. His parents had told him only once, according to Mr. Hertell. But it was something he carried around internally as a kid coming of age on Long Island.
“Why didn’t they want me?” Mr. Hertell would ask himself as a child regarding his birth parents. Even though he had a loving family at home, he recalled observing other children during Christmas and Thanksgiving and wondering why their biological parents did not “reject” them, he said.
It wasn’t until his sophomore year in high school that Mr. Hertell had the confidence to invite his parents to see one of his sporting events.
“I had to be the best, to prove to my parents, my adoptive parents, that they made the right decision adopting me,” he explained.
And it was not until five years ago that Mr. Hertell could disclose to doctors that he was adopted. But his journey discovering his genetic past began sooner, “10 to 12 years ago,” according to his estimation.
Over time, the genetic tracing results would present closer and closer relations, until he connected with a first cousin in New Hampshire named Kathleen.
From 23andMe, and his own investigation, Mr. Hertell learned about his birth mother, Rita Patrice Campbell, who became pregnant at 26, during the years of the Second World War. Out-of-wedlock children were very much taboo, especially for a Roman Catholic like his birth mother.
Not much was known about his birth father, other than he went overseas during World War II and never returned, noted Mr. Hertell. He learned that his adoption was private and that he was given to his adoptive parents at two weeks of age.
Earlier in the summer, Mr. Hertell’s biological first cousin, Kathleen; her husband and their two children visited him in Westfield for a barbecue, and any skepticism regarding the effectiveness of genetic testing was dispelled. His new extended family shared stories, helping him build a picture of his biological family and their far-reaching connections to his Long Island home.
Mr. Hertell’s grandson, Jack, and Kathleen’s husband, Jim, both talented chess enthusiasts, squared off over games of chess during the barbecue.
But all along, Mr. Hertell said, pure curiosity was a major force in his journey for genetic self-discovery.
Through 23andMe, he found out he was predominately of Irish descent — 65 percent, to be exact. Mr. Hertell was taken aback. His closest friends, peers, and, of course, his beloved wife, were descendants of the Emerald Isle.
And the self-confessed trepidation Mr. Hertell had coming into the interview where his adoption and family history would be public was dismissed when his friends urged him to speak about his experiences.
“I said no three times to be the Imagine chair,” said Mr. Hertell. “This could be the same thing.”