November 4, 2013

General William Shaffer Key, Soldier and Freemason

By T.S. Akers

William S. Key, Commanding 45th Infantry Division
(Courtesy of the Oklahoma Military Department)

The profession of arms and the fraternity of Freemasonry have long marched together.  The British military has throughout its years had Masonic Lodges attached to several of its regiments.  Jessica Harland-Jacobs chronicles the history of Freemasonry in the British Empire in her book Builders of Empire, illustrating how Irish military lodges spread the influence of Freemasonry across the Empire.[i]  The idea of Manifest Destiny in the United States also helped with the spread of Freemasonry.  One can find evidence of Freemasons stationed at the various frontier posts, such as Fort Larned, Kansas; where soldiers with time on their hands carved their names and the square and compasses into the soft stone that comprised the fort’s buildings.

Oklahoma is no exception when it comes to military activity and the advance of Freemasonry.  Several Masonic leaders in Oklahoma have had noteworthy military careers, one of those being Major General William Shaffer Key. 

General Key was born in Dudleyville, Alabama on October 6, 1889.[ii]  Both of his grandfathers had served the Confederacy during the Civil War.[iii]  Key enlisted in the Georgia National Guard on April 7, 1907 and served as a private until 1910 when he was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Infantry.[iv]  It was in 1911 that Key made his way to Oklahoma, setting up his residence in Wewoka.  There he established the Key Hardware Company and the Wewoka Gas Company.[v]  On July 12, 1912, Key enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard and was again commissioned a First Lieutenant in 1914.[vi]  It was in Wewoka that he met his future bride Irene Davis and they were married in 1914.[vii]

Key first saw action in 1916 with the First Infantry on the Mexican Border during the Punitive Expedition.  He would be mustered into Federal service a second time in 1917 when the Oklahoma National Guard left for France.  Key rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during WWI, serving as Quartermaster of the 7th Division.  He would participate in the Champagne Defensive, Chateau Thiery, St. Mihiel, and the Meusse-Argonne Offensive.[viii]

In 1924, Key was appointed to serve as Warden of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester.   During his tenure there he was able to place the prison on a self operating basis requiring no state appropriation for maintenance.  Key moved to Oklahoma City in 1927 and became an independent oil and gas operator and built the Key Building which he owned and operated.  In addition to serving as Chairman of the State Pardon and Parole Board from 1928 to 1932, Key also served as the director of the Security National Bank (1928-1929) and the First National Bank and Trust Company (1929-1933).  He again served as Warden of the State Penitentiary in 1935 at the appointment of Governor E.W. Marland.[ix]

Key found himself in Federal service once more in 1935 as the head of the Works Progress Administration in Oklahoma.  In this capacity he oversaw the construction of more than 350 schools and twenty libraries.  Of the 126 armories built in the United States during this period, fifty-three were constructed in Oklahoma.  The WPA provided $43 million in funds to Oklahoma by March of 1937 and employed over one hundred thousand Oklahomans.[x]  Key entered the political arena briefly in 1938 as the Democratic candidate for governor.  He was defeated by Leon C. Phillips in a 3,000 vote margin.[xi]

Key, having been made a Brigadier General in 1928, was promoted to Major General of the Line in 1937.[xii]  As Commander of the 45th Infantry Division, he was mobilized for maneuvers in Louisiana and then assumed command of Fort Sill.  In October of 1942, Key received his orders for Europe as Provost Marshall General of the United States Army.  He would next be posted as Commanding General of the American Forces in Iceland, this being one of the most strategic points as it commanded the sea and air lanes to Europe.  For his service in Iceland, Key would be made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Falcon.  He would complete his WWII service in Hungary as Head of the American Armistice Control, directing the successful repatriation of thousands of Hungarian displaced persons.[xiii]

Key had numerous passions throughout his lifetime.  One of those was the Indian and military history of Oklahoma, his adopted home.  Key was first elected to the Board of Directors of the Oklahoma Historical Society in 1927.  He went on to serve as Vice President from 1936 to 1950 and acting President in 1948 until his election as President in 1950.  Key remained as President of the Board until 1958.  During his tenure on the Board, the Oklahoma Historical Society broadened its program of work including the marking of historic sites across the state.[xiv]

One of Key’s other passions was Freemasonry.  He was raised a Master Mason in Seminole Lodge No. 147 at Wewoka in 1913, serving as Worshipful Master in 1921.  Key took the degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry (AASR) in 1920 at Indian Consistory in McAlester.  He would be exalted to the august degree of Royal Arch Mason in Indian Chapter No. 1 and become a Royal and Select Master of Union Council No. 3 both of McAlester.  Key was dubbed and created a Knight of the Temple in Bethlehem Commandery No. 45 of Oklahoma City.[xv]

Key was decorated a Knight Commander of the Court of Honor of the Scottish Rite in 1929 and coroneted a Thirty-Third Degree Mason in 1937.  During this period he was also elected to the Board of the Masonic Charity Foundation in 1930, serving as President in 1950.  That same year Key was appointed Deputy of the Supreme Council of the AASR upon the death of Sovereign Grand Inspector General Rufus Renfrew.  Key was elected an Active Member of the Supreme Council in 1951 and served as Sovereign Grand Inspector General of Oklahoma until his death in 1959.[xvi]

Like many great Oklahoma Masons, Key made a lasting contribution to the landscape of Oklahoma Freemasonry.  Prior to his death he secured Letters Temporary for a Scottish Rite Valley in Tulsa.  It was at the third Reunion of the Tulsa Valley in 1958 that Key invited Sovereign Grand Commander Luther A. Smith to attend.  Key made the trip to Tulsa from Oklahoma City each day of the three day Reunion that December.  Grand Commander Smith noted that Key did not look well, but Key seemed as lively as ever.[xvii]  Key would pass onto to that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens on January 5, 1959.[xviii]

Key’s funeral was held at the First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.  The officiates were Herschel Hobbs, a member of Guthrie Scottish Rite and Chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Dr. John Wesley Raley, president of Oklahoma Baptist University and former Assistant Division Chaplain of the 45th Infantry Division.[xix]

Upon learning of the passing of Key, his wife received the following message from the President.

            January 21, 1959

            Dear Mrs. Key:

Word reached me recently of the death, early this month of General Key.  He was a fine soldier and citizen, and served his country with devotion and courage.  I was fortunate to count him among my friends.

            Mrs. Eisenhower joins me in deepest sympathy to you.

            Dwight D. Eisenhower[xx]

General William Shaffer Key embodied all that defined the American citizen soldier.  He once remarked “The greatest thing in life is friends.  They comprise the greatest wealth a person may have…”[xxi]  Key was widely respected in the many facets of his life and many would be well served to emulate his example. 

[i]  Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs, Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717-1927 (North Carolina:  The University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
[ii]  “Key, William Shaffer,” Oklahoma Historical Society’s Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, <>, Accessed 31 October 2013.
[iii]  Muriel H. Wright, “William Shaffer Key: Oklahoma Patriot,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 37 (1959):  138.
[iv]  Oklahoma Military Department, Historical Annual National Guard of the State of Oklahoma 1938 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana:  Army and Navy Publishing Co., 1938), 23.
[v]  Wright, 141.
[vi]  Oklahoma Military Department, 23.
[vii]  Robert G. Davis, The Honored Men of Oklahoma Scottish Rite Masonry (Oklahoma:  Oklahoma Lodge of Research, 1997), 55.
[viii]  Oklahoma Military Department, 23.
[ix]  Wright, 141-142.
[x]  “Key, William Shaffer.”
[xi]  Wright, 142.
[xii]  Oklahoma Military Department, 23.
[xiii]  Wright, 139-141.
[xiv]  Ibid., 143.
[xv]  Davis, 58.
[xvi]  Ibid., 58.
[xvii]  Ibid., 59.
[xviii]  “Key, William Shaffer.”
[xix]  Davis, 59.
[xx]  Wright, 148.
[xxi]  Davis., 55.

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