By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
On March 24, Ewing High School senior Jaycee Lowe proudly accepted the Renee Keister Award from the woman for which it was named. The crowd at the Mercer County CYO Center, on hand to watch the 20th annual high school basketball all-star games, applauded warmly as it was well aware of Lowe’s skillset.
Few, however, knew much about the presenter.
In the early 1980s, Renee Keister was one of the top players in Mercer County just as girls’ basketball was gaining interest. She was on her way to setting recAords after outstanding freshman and sophomore seasons with McCorristin High School (now Trenton Catholic Academy). Scoring and rebounding with equal zeal, she looked more like a college sophomore than a high school 10th-grader.
Photo Gallery: CYO High School Basketball All Star Games
Then, on June 15, 1983, Renee was at home watching TV with friends. They began hitting each other with pillows, which evolved into a friendly wrestling match. At one point, she tried flipping one of the teens, but her neck could not withstand the weight. In an instant, it broke, and she suffered a spinal cord injury.
“I knew from the second that I got hurt that I was paralyzed,” she said. “No one needed to tell me.”
Renee may have not been able to physically stand, but she stood up to the emotional challenge.
“I came to terms with my injury and loss at the very beginning; it was not something that tormented me,” she said. “Being significantly injured and disabled was a fact, and I just started moving forward with life as it were.”
New Way of Life
Franciscan Sister Marguerite O’Beirne, school principal at the time, and former Olympic basketball player Anne Donovan helped transition Renee into her new life. Sister Marguerite and her staff provided support and comfort to the family, helped make Renee’s home wheelchair accessible and acquired the proper transportation. The principal also arranged for Donovan to help with fundraisers, and the Olympian became close friends with Renee until passing last year.
“That was so kind of them both,” said Renee, whose married name is now Balke. “However, I think it was the young people in my life who played the biggest part in my easy adjustment to my new way of life. The kids all went out of their way to make me feel accepted and wanted as a regular member of their groups.”
She has also been bolstered by her mom, Helen, and her sister, Paula Carmichael, who she terms her “best friend” along with her husband.
Now a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Allentown, Renee’s faith also sustained her during that period.
“My faith never wavered after becoming hurt, and it has strengthened since then,” she said. “Of course, it was a tragic thing that happened to me, but I always knew that my faith in the Lord would give me the strength to cope with my situation and to move forward in life on a positive path.”
She did just that, graduating from McCorristin and obtaining a psychology degree from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina. Earning a master’s degree in counseling services at Rider University, Lawrenceville, she enjoyed a 25-year career for the Department of Labor, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services before retiring in 2017.
It was in college where she met Pete Balke, her husband of 27 years.
“He never knew me before my accident, which is extra special, as he is not basing his love and interest in me per who I once was or did,” Renee said. “Any of my accomplishments and achievements since meeting Pete never would have happened if he were not in my life.”
Their daughter, Madison, is sophomore for the Towson University softball team in Maryland and is red shirting this spring to focus on academics. Their son, Maguire, a lifelong baseball player, now plays tennis at Manhattanville College. Both graduated from Steinert High School, Hamilton Township.
“We have always enjoyed watching the kids play sports and are very proud of their accomplishments,” Renee said.
She is also proud of each winner of the Renee Keister Award, which was established in 1993 at the urging of the late Trentonian girls basketball writer, George O’Gorman. Since Pete follows the local sports scene closely, he tells his wife who may have a shot at her award, and the two try and guess who it might be.
“I felt, and still feel, honored to have the award named after me,” she said. “It feels so great inside to know that people think enough about you and respect you in such a positive way, and then choose such amazing young women that they compare to you. The recipients thank me for receiving ‘my’ award, but I feel flattered to be compared to them.”
When it comes to what she looks for in a Keister honoree, she said, “I would like the winner to be a kind and caring person who values her education.”
Renee hopes that her professional and personal roles have inspired others to realize life doesn’t end due to disability.
“God has a purpose, and so I believe I am following his intended path for me,” she said. “My life is wonderful and successful, and I am very happy. There is no saying that it would necessarily be better if I never became disabled.”