Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe knew better than most that courage is not an absence of fear but the ability to overcome it and do the right thing.
O’Keefe faced the ultimate fear at age 21 as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot in World War II. He rarely talked about his service, until those stories became precious to a nation losing its World War II veterans and he was asked to participate in a documentary and retell the tales for print.
When he locked eyes over Okinawa with a Japanese kamikaze pilot, he said, they both knew one of them was going down. It was not O’Keefe. He shot down five Japanese airplanes in less than an hour on his first mission, then shot down two more a few days later, becoming an ace pilot in a legendary squadron known as the “Death Rattlers.”
The war was a defining moment in O’Keefe’s life, but not the first or last. He lived a big life and accomplished more than 10 other men might have managed.
He had one advantage.
“He stretched the luck of the Irish to its limit, ” said his youngest son, Joe O’Keefe.
On the occasion of his death Tuesday at age 93, the Mississippi Coast mourned the loss of a leader who helped shape the community; a philanthropist who donated millions to causes large and small; patriarch of a family that included 13 children, 40 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren; and a lifelong Democrat who kept up with politics until the end.
He died as he most enjoyed living, surrounded by family at his home overlooking the Mississippi Sound in Biloxi. O’Keefe suffered from congestive heart failure.
“He’s leaving a big footprint,” his oldest child, Maureen O’Keefe Ward, said. “I think all of us together won’t be able to fill it. We’ll do our best.”
O’Keefe’s father owned livery and funeral businesses, but the family lost their Ocean Springs mansion in the Great Depression and moved to Biloxi.
O’Keefe would later build a business empire, but he never looked down on people who had less than he did. And because he was willing to take risks, he didn’t always know how he would manage to pay his bills even when others thought he had plenty of money.
He taught his children that people should be treated with dignity regardless of their race, creed or station in life.
“He demonstrated that by example over and over and over again,” Joe O’Keefe said. “He was just an absolute rock-solid believer in the common dignity.”
Jerry O’Keefe married Annette Saxon before he left for the war. He joined his father’s funeral business after the war, then bought O’Keefe Funeral Home before his father died. In 1957, he bought the Bradford Funeral Home Co., merging the businesses as Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home.
He and his wife also founded Gulf National Life Insurance Co., which eventually became the state’s largest provider of life and burial insurance policies through 200 affiliated funeral homes.
In business dealings, he was impossible to intimidate, said his longtime attorney, Michael Cavanaugh.
O’Keefe was no stranger to lawsuits. His pretrial testimony was sought in many a case. On one occasion, Cavanaugh said, O’Keefe was reluctant to testify. He wanted to know what would happen if he failed to show up in response to a summons.
Well, Cavanaugh told O’Keefe, he could be hauled before the judge, fined and assessed court costs.
“Can they shoot me?” O’Keefe asked. No, Cavanaugh told O’Keefe, they couldn’t shoot him. “I’m not going,” O’Keefe said. Cavanaugh managed to scuttle the testimony without repercussions.
Always interested in politics, O’Keefe ran for his first elective office in 1959, beating an incumbent member of the state House of Representatives. He served through 1963.
Ten years later, he was elected Biloxi’s mayor, serving eight years. O’Keefe also was a major donor to community causes, including the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, named in Annette O’Keefe’s honor after he contributed in her memory the project’s first major donation. He raised millions for the museum and for other charities.
He also helped people down on their luck. Maureen Ward and his third child, Cecilia O’Keefe Neustrom, said he received four or five letters a week asking for help. While he did not offer assistance to all who asked, the women said he wrote a lot of checks.
O’Keefe also helped shape modern-day Biloxi. As mayor, he carried out a previous plan to transform Vieux Marche downtown into a pedestrian mall, where retail has since been supplanted by offices, nightclubs and other businesses. He also led annexation that expanded Biloxi northwestward and updated the city’s harbor for commercial and recreational boats.
O’Keefe believed in equal rights for all Americans. In 1976, he revoked a parade permit the Ku Klux Klan had secured. Klan members wound up being arrested, City Hall was vandalized and O’Keefe had a cross burned on his front lawn.
Three weeks ago, his daughter, Susan O’Keefe Snyder, showed him a KKK pamphlet that had been dropped on the walkway at her Ocean Springs home. He had trouble sleeping that night, he told her the next day. He wanted to know what he could do about it. And then he paused and shook his head.
“I guess I’m too old to do anything,” he said.
Snyder said, “I just thought it was incredible that at this age and in his final weeks of life that that upset him to the degree that he couldn’t sleep at night.”
Young at heart
Despite his business and political responsibilities, O’Keefe was always a presence in his household. His joy for life never waned. His sons slept on the first floor of the house, his daughters on the second.
Joe O’Keefe well remembers his father’s booming voice as he breezed past the boys’ bedrooms in the mornings: “Time to get up, time to get up. I know you love that getting up.”
Joe O’Keefe said: “It makes me think of how young at heart he was. He was the single most young-at-heart person I’ve ever known in my life. The amazing thing was he was young at heart for 93 years. He had that same optimistic attitude, that same eagerness, that same grit, that same cap set against the wind.”
He and his wife turned toward philanthropy in the 1990s, starting The O’Keefe Foundation with a $10 million endowment. After Annette O’Keefe died in 1998, he married Martha Peterson.
Nothing surpassed Jerry O’Keefe’s love of family. His family noted in a written remembrance:
“The happiest moments of his life, by his own account, were in the relaxed informal company of his sprawling family — on fishing trips in the Gulf of Mexico; during shrimp, crab or crawfish boils in the backyard; watching Fourth of July fireworks from the front yard; or, more often, cooking traditional dinners of fried chicken on Sundays.
“In his later years, he would hand-cut and personally fry 10 chickens each Sunday morning for the O’Keefe family.”
The family, in fact, fried chicken last Sunday. Joe O’Keefe said there must have been about 40 of them in the house.
His father kept up with politics until the end, still a Democrat in an ocean of Republicans. He didn’t hold political affiliation against his friends, though. His friend, the architect Frank Genzer, is a Republican.
“We didn’t let that get in our way,” Genzer said. “ Our friendship was never dependent on politics.”
O’Keefe continued to keep up with every turn in the presidential race. When he found out David Duke was running for Congress, he called daughter Cecilia Neustrom to ask if her husband, a retiring Lafayette, La., Parish sheriff, might run against Duke. The answer was, “No,” but O’Keefe had to ask.
As was his life, his funeral will be one to remember. A Mass is set for Saturday at Nativity Catholic Church in downtown Biloxi.
A procession across the Biloxi Bay Bridge will include the Patriot Guard and a group of pilots, his obituary says. At Porter Avenue, a horse-drawn hearse will bear O’Keefe’s casket to his final resting place, Evergreen Cemetery.
Sampling of Jerry O’Keefe’s accolades
▪ World War II honors: United States Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, Gold Star
▪ Biloxi’s Outstanding Young Man of 1952
▪ Congressional Gold Medal, 2015
▪ 1998 Distinguished Citizen Award, Pine Burr Area Council, Boy Scouts of America
▪ YMCA Humanitarian Award, 2010