The Priest of 13th Street

A Center City icon leaves a bittersweet legacy.

By Frank Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 14, 2005

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When I interviewed Roy Beckhoff inside his iconic sidewalk cubbyhole last October, the beloved Center City keysmith jokingly told me his age was "indeterminate."

I let it go at that.

I didn't think it mattered whether the slender, middle-aged Beckhoff was 50 or 54 or whatever. Besides, an urbane former schoolteacher who'd apparently found contentedness grinding keys for a living was entitled to a little vanity, I supposed.

But now that Roy's gone-he died of a heart attack on Labor Day, says his brother Hank, who also told me Roy's age-I have the answer. I'm not going to tell you, though, because it still doesn't matter.

What does matter is that through the years Roy's bonhomie and wit inspired thousand of Philadelphians. And he undoubtedly refreshed thousands more with his facility for detaching himself from the rat race while offering perspective and friendship to anyone who approached his little hole in the wall on 13th Street above Chestnut.

"He was like a priest, and this was his pulpit," says Hank Beckhoff two days after Roy's startling death. Hank, director of a Doylestown medical clinic, sits in the chair his younger brother occupied every workday, surrounded by a grinder, blanks, key chains and other tools of the trade.

"I'm a sonofabitch, but Roy was the kindest person you ever met in your life. People counted on him for a ride, to lend them some money or just to be here to talk. He was the kind of guy you could trust."

As Hank speaks, one sidewalk stroller after another pokes their head through the door, appearing shocked, offering condolences and expressing regret that a guy many knew only as "the key man" has left them.

Across from Hank Beckhoff sits Tim Polhamus, who describes himself as Roy's best friend. "It's brutal," Polhamus says while staring ahead vacantly.

Like countless others, Polhamus met Roy because he needed a key one day. Roy made one for him, but it didn't fit. Polhamus brought it back, and Roy asked him to step inside while he reground it.

"There was nothing wrong with the key," Polhamus remembers. "The lock on my door was the problem, but Roy didn't get irritated or anything. He just asked me questions about how the key didn't fit, and made adjustments. And then we got to talking. Roy liked to talk."

He liked to read too, and he did so voraciously.

Getting back to talking, Polhamus abruptly announces that Roy spoke both French and Italian, prompting Hank to recall a vacation he and his brother took some 15 years ago.

"Roy had never really been anywhere, so I took him to Paris with me," Hank says. "His French was so good the people there thought he was a Frenchman. It made him feel like a prince."

Perhaps Roy didn't travel much because he was too busy running his key shack. He took over the business, which his father founded in 1966, two years before his ailing mother Fanny died in 1991. Roy had to end his teaching career to do so, but he was needed, and he characteristically answered the call.

"I helped my father open this place when I was a teenager," Hank says. "And I couldn't wait to get out. But Roy stuck by the family. Like I say, he was the good guy." Hank now says another family member may take over the business.

Tom Stranix of South Philly is one of a stream of passers-by who testifies to that goodness.

On his way to church, the 48-year-old Stranix, who uses a cane, steps inside and introduces himself before asking whether his good friend Roy has indeed died. After hearing the bad news, he hangs his head.

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