There are moments in life when one's resolve is tested, when the outcome is uncertain, but we power through adversity anyway in order to reach our desired goal. Dawson Keller knows these moments well. They come not just from his personal life but also from his job as a police officer – one whose recent efforts helped save dozens of lives from a terrible disaster.
Keller learned the value of hard work shortly after high school. As a first-generation college student, Keller enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017, where he worked 60 hours a week in order to pay for his education and provide for himself. This way of living wasn't sustainable, however, and after a year and a half, Keller dropped out due to failing grades.
Down but not out, Keller eventually bounced back. He reapplied to school, this time at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, aiming to enter its respected online Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice program.
"My college journey so far has been very interesting," Keller said. "After I tried UW-Madison, UW-Platteville got back to me with a letter stating that in order to show I was serious about college I would need to take some lower-level classes at the technical school. So I went to Madison College for a year to get some college credits under my belt. I worked really hard. I managed to get a 4.0 GPA, then I reapplied to Platteville."
UW-Platteville accepted Keller's application, and he started the online BSCJ program in the summer of 2021. This development served not only as a major win for Keller, but also as a major step toward his goal of becoming a police officer – a goal which Keller officially achieved this year by joining the McFarland Police Department. Since then, Keller has kept busy between his classes and training as he works toward a spring 2024 graduation.
"My college journey will have taken seven years by the time I finish," Keller said. "That’s a long time. But I did it on my time, and at least I’m already in a career I love.”
However, unlike his college campaign, Keller’s new career tested him immediately. Shortly after joining the police force, Keller’s unit received a call one early morning in March while out patrolling. A fire had broken out at a nearby apartment complex in Monona, Wisconsin, leaving many elderly and mobility-challenged residents in grave danger.
Keller’s unit responded to the call and quickly arrived at the scene. Nothing could have prepared him for what awaited.
“I turn onto the street and the block is just covered in smoke,” Keller said. “I arrive at the building and the entire third floor is engulfed in flames – it’s massive. But the image that sticks with me most is when I stopped the car. A sheet of paper flew across my windshield, on fire, like a nightmarish tumbleweed.”
Wasting no time, Keller ran into the inferno along with several other officers. As an officer in training, Keller explained police protocol is to never separate from your partner – which is exactly what happened in the ensuing chaos. He stayed focused, however. He went door to door, floor by floor, evacuating residents out of their smoldering homes, all without protective gear or a respirator.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Keller said, reflecting back on that moment. “I didn’t know if the building was going to collapse. I didn’t know if the roof was going to cave in. All I knew was I needed to get these people out of here.”
Working with his fellow officers, Keller did just that. First responders from several agencies and surrounding areas had arrived on the scene at this point, and with their assistance, Keller’s team evacuated everyone from the building.
Yet as soon as they accomplished this goal, another problem presented itself: the frigid outside temperatures. As a result of the cold, everyone escaping the fire was moving between two extremes, creating an “out of the frying pan and into the freezer” type of situation.
“Some of the residents didn't have shoes on,” Keller said. “Some of them were deaf. Some of them were blind. Some of them were sitting there with nothing but a walker and a nightgown because they didn't have time to put their shoes on. They're outside but it’s freezing cold. So now we have to evacuate them somewhere warm.”
Working together, officers, firefighters and agencies on scene moved the residents to a neighboring apartment complex, using their own cars to transfer those who had difficulty moving. By this time, Monona firefighters had arrived at the scene and were battling the blaze, working to quell the flames. Hours later, the fire was finally extinguished, ending what had turned into a very long night for many.
This past April, Keller and his team were awarded a letter of commendation for their efforts. For Keller the real prize lay in simply helping his community. He explained that the ability to make a difference in others’ lives inspired him to first join the force. Everything else resulting from that mission is secondary.
Keller also applies this altruistic philosophy to his education. According to Keller, the more he can educate himself, the better of a police officer he can be, and the better he can serve his community. There’s a second part to his motivations as well. After graduating next May, he eventually plans to pursue a graduate degree and teach online at the college level, helping others who may have also struggled in the past.
“Eventually I want to teach,” Keller said. “I think that would be a really full circle moment for me. Because I failed, right? I completely failed – but I got back up. I redid college, all through online learning, and it’s made my life way easier. So I think being able to help others who have struggled, who college may be overwhelming for, would be a nice thing to pursue.”
With a year of school left and a busy career already unfolding, it could be said Keller’s own struggles may not be over with, but his fortunes are certainly looking up.