new mexico state university faculty member


Retired New Mexico State University faculty member Dr. Conrad G. Keyes, Jr. had big shoes to fill. His father spent much of his life meeting the water needs of New Mexico’s Pecos Valley, which led the family to engrave the words “Water Man” on his tombstone. Additionally, Keyes’ mother had a deep commitment to serving others, which is memorialized by the words “Super Volunteer” on her headstone.

It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. Keyes blazed his own pioneering trail, becoming a leader in addressing water issues across New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest during his lengthy career working in NMSU’s Department of Civil Engineering, and then as a consultant after retirement.

His work helped expand the knowledge about water usage as well as prepare a new generation of “water men” (and women) who are currently responding to one of today’s most pressing issues: water availability and quality. “Every place in the world is having either extreme flooding or extreme drought. That’s the nature of the climate,” Keyes said.

Now the noted professor is supporting the next generation of civil engineers. Keyes initially worked with the New Mexico Engineering Foundation to provide financial support for undergraduate students. He then helped create the Academy of Civil, Agricultural, and Geological Engineering Scholarship through the New Mexico State University Foundation.

When he became department head, Keyes started a life insurance policy to protect his family. Over time, and because he has a special place in his heart for master’s and doctoral students, he established the Conrad G. Keyes Jr. Endowed Scholarship in Civil Engineering, specifically in the area of Water Resources Engineering. He used the funds in his insurance policy to create the endowment, adding more funds to his scholarship over time. “People who are working on their thesis or dissertation need the money to complete their degree,” he explained. “They may not be working as a graduate assistant, so they may have a semester without money. I know that because I was almost in that situation a couple of times myself.”

An Early Start

Keyes was born into a family that had a deep history of drilling for natural resources. “My grandfather actually drilled the first asphalt well in east of Carlsbad. He was a Texaco distributor in Roswell and had oil leases in Eddy County between Artesia and Carlsbad,” Keyes remembered. “We lived on my grandfather’s lease and my dad took care of all the wells.”

Keyes’ early life was spent in New Mexico, except for the family’s short stay in California when his father worked as a civilian contractor for the federal government during World War II. “I always say, ‘I was born in the oil field, reared in Artesia, and raised in Roswell, and then my wife took care of me in college in Las Cruces,’” he said.

Growing up, young Conrad was deeply influenced by his mother, who clocked approximately 20,000 hours volunteering in the Pink Ladies Program in hospitals in Artesia, Roswell, and Ruidoso and was involved in a women’s club and church work for over 25 years.

Boy Scouts also was another formative experience. Keyes has fond memories of his mother serving as Den Mother for his Cub Scout troop from 1947-1950—and he continued to be involved in scouting throughout his youth. “Going to Valley Forge as a 12-year-old Boy Scout and seeing 50,000 Boy Scouts at one time influenced me in what I was going to do over the next couple of years,” he said. “In our neighborhood, six of us earned the Eagle Scout badge.”

Drilling Deep

After World War II ended, Keyes’ father owned and operated a drilling company. “My father drilled water wells from 1947 into the 1960s,” Keyes said. “He probably drilled over a third of the water wells in the Pecos Valley and for ranchers in the mountain areas—creating all the drainage into the Pecos Valley in Southwest New Mexico. He also did some of the wells in Lea County, Eddy County, Chaves County, and Lincoln County, which influenced the supply of water for cities in that area.”

Entering his teenage years, Keyes found that he had a ready-made job working for his father’s company. “I started driving the water truck at age 12 out on the county roads between the different projects or wells that he was drilling. I also worked in the shop area on East 2nd in Roswell,” he said. “During the summers when I wasn’t doing my Boy Scouting, I was basically working for him as a tool pusher on the water-well rigs and as a water truck driver.”

Thanks to these jobs, the young man began to understand oilfield work – and decided he didn’t want to follow his father’s path. “Basically, it’s called roughnecking in the water world – and that was hard work. I decided to seek an easier path, so I went to school,” Keyes explained, adding that his paternal grandmother offered financial support so he could attend college.

new mexico state university faculty member

Becoming an Aggie

Keyes decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in NMSU’s Department of Civil Engineering, even though the department wasn’t addressing water issues. Instead, Keyes focused on building other types of foundational knowledge that helped him excel. “We started working in the concrete lab and the asphalt lab as lab assistants to earn more funding for our undergraduate degree,” he said. “I also started teaching in the survey labs when I was a senior.”

Keyes also participated in NMSU’s ROTC as an undergraduate. During his senior year, he served as the G3 for the entire corps and had the responsibility for managing the group’s training and schedule.

His college experience also expanded to include family life. Keyes married his high school sweetheart, Tywilla, in 1957. The couple moved to the university’s newly completed married housing after briefly living in a trailer that his paternal grandmother’s money had financed. When he wasn’t studying, he worked odd jobs on campus and around the community to support his growing family. In 1959, Tywilla gave birth to their oldest son, followed by their second son in 1961 (who was born the day before Keyes took the oral exam for his master’s degree).

Ultimately Keyes’ timing in completing his undergraduate degree proved fortuitous. The Department of Civil Engineering was focusing on launching a Ph.D. program in 1965 and, as a result, began expanding its faculty. Many of the scholars focused on water resources, and Keyes quickly enrolled in these classes as he started his doctoral degree.

The graduate student’s strong relationships with the new faculty members continued to be a turning point in his education—and life—as he was one of the first NMSU candidates in Civil Engineering’s new doctoral program. “I did my doctoral work in desalination and atmospheric water management. That’s how I got into the water industry,” Keyes noted, adding that his doctoral work was interrupted so he could complete his required active military duty.

Project Skywater

Keyes joined NMSU’s faculty after graduation and soon became involved in Project Skywater, a research project designed to seed winter clouds to increase the snowfall and snowpack in the Jemez Mountain area in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Keyes and a team of researchers worked on randomized seeding of clouds for a year before his family joined him in Cuba, New Mexico for the remaining three years. The project included a weather service station where Tywilla , who served as a volunteer meteorological technician, assisted in providing measurements for the National Weather Service.

During the Cuba assignment, Keyes and his family were in the area when the temperature dropped to -45 degrees Fahrenheit. “The whole village had no water for six weeks after that freeze. It froze the water pipes four feet underground and froze the sewer system water drainage,” he recalled. “It took them six weeks to get ten to fifteen percent of that system back working—and that system went all over the valley.”

His work from the Cuba area has continued to inform other projects over the years. “I’ve been developing standards on how to conduct cloud-seeding projects, not only in the summer but also in the winter,” he said. “I’ve also been working on hail-suppression projects and fog-dispersal projects.”

In the 1970s and 80s, that type of research continued to emerge over the mountain West—and Keyes, serving as Executive Director of the North American Interstate Weather Modification Council, was right in the middle of various projects until he was named NMSU department head. He also worked on a project with NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratories that focused on geothermal wells located on NMSU’s campus. “We even used geothermal water in a piping system to heat the dormitories in the wintertime in the 1980s.”

Growing Quality

Over the years, Keyes has seen tremendous change at NMSU and in the Las Cruces community. “In 1963-64, we had 3,700 students at New Mexico State. When I started as a student in 1955, there were 1,500 students—and 15,000 residents in Las Cruces. We had three streets that went from downtown Las Cruces to New Mexico State.”

Yet the campus soon started growing. “It grew when the new presidents came in and the graduate school grew tremendously,” Keyes said. “And in 1982, we were in the top 25 civil engineering graduate departments in the country because of the increase in the new faculty, graduate stipends, enrollment, and new facilities, including the creation of Hernandez Hall, named after the dean who hired me.” Keyes credits NMSU’s increased prominence to the students’ resilience and commitment to education.

Keyes notes that while working on his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, he needed extra funds to finish his degrees, but no scholarships were available. “Because of that, I’ve always felt it was important to give back to today’s students during the times when they need funding the most.”

As the Civil, Agricultural and Geologic Engineering (CAGE) department head, Keyes says he secured funding from potential donors for any kind of support for the students, whether for undergraduate or graduate studies. “I’ve always endorsed scholarship funding for the folks that need support during their last semester or last year. It was a critical time for me, and I know how critical of a time it is for other students, too.”

“Water Man” and “Super Volunteer” may have defined his parents, but “Generous Giver” and “Water Hero” may very well distinguish Conrad G. Keyes, Jr. for the next generation.