Harrison County

Jerry O’Keefe remembered as war hero, family man

Friends and onlookers lined up under the canopy of oak trees on Porter Avenue in Ocean Springs hoping to catch a final glimpse of a Coast community leader.

Services on Saturday morning honored the life of former Biloxi Mayor and philanthropist Jerry O’Keefe, who died Tuesday at 93.

After the funeral Mass at the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral in Biloxi, the procession headed east on U.S. 90 across the Biloxi Bay Bridge toward the family’s business, Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home in Ocean Springs.

On Porter Avenue, in front of the funeral home, O’Keefe’s casket was transferred to a horse-drawn hearse that carried the celebrated World War II flying ace to his final resting place at Evergreen Cemetery.

Although a thunderstorm momentarily sent people indoors, many returned to see the processional.

“We knew Mr. O’Keefe,” Toni Bond of Ocean Springs said, “so we came out here to pay our respects.”

Life of service

Bishop Roger P. Morin of the Biloxi Diocese celebrated the Mass attended by hundreds, including Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich, Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran, former Mississippi Coast Coliseum Director Bill Holmes and former Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway.

Morin called O’Keefe a “patriot who lived a life of community service. He was blessed with a long life. His 93 years were animated by faith.”

O’Keefe’s family, including his wife, Martha, and his sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, filled several pews of the cathedral.

O’Keefe and his first wife, Annette, had 13 children. Annette died in 1998.

“As someone said, ‘You know the church will be filled because all of the O’Keefe family will be there,’ ” Morin said. “We are surrounded by their love as we celebrate the life of Jerry O’Keefe.”

Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe was born in Ocean Springs in 1923. He served as mayor of Biloxi from 1973 to 1981. He and Annette formed the O’Keefe Foundation to benefit local charities. He was instrumental in the formation of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.

Retired Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, the first leader of the Biloxi Diocese, said he had been friends with O’Keefe for nearly four decades.

“When I became the first bishop of the diocese, Jerry and Annette were there with me,” he said. “We always celebrated our birthday together at Mary Mahoney’s (restaurant), but we won’t be able to do that this year because he’s gone home to glory.”

A war hero

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, O’Keefe joined the U.S. Navy.

He received his wings as a Marine Corps aviator in 1943 and became an ace pilot, leading a squadron into battle against a Japanese kamikaze squad in Okinawa.

He was a highly decorated military flier, earning the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, Gold Star and, in 2015, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal for American Aces.

His longtime friend, Cono Caranna, who delivered one of two eulogies, praised him for his dedication to his family and country.

“His love for his family, community and country is something he held dear,” Caranna said. “He was a war hero.”