Jackson County

He went viral for saluting Jerry O’Keefe — but that’s not why he did it

When his grandma took him recently to the funeral of a highway patrolman, 9-year-old Kaiden Wade noted the state troopers who stood stock-still in their uniforms as the motorcade passed.

He was at his great-grandmother’s home in Ocean Springs when she told him a World War II hero’s funeral procession was about to pass on the corner. There would be a horse-drawn hearse, she said.

Kaiden walked to the corner and stood as Jerry O’Keefe’s procession passed. He stood there for 30 minutes in the rain. He wanted to see the horse-drawn hearse. And he wanted, he said, to pay his respects.

“I stood still the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t move a muscle, but I probably blinked a little.”

Kaiden didn’t realize it at the time, but the mourners not only noted his presence, the family of the World War II flying ace was touched and amazed by the respect he showed their loved one.

Someone snapped a picture of Kaiden there on the corner with his hand over his heart. O’Keefe family and friends shared the photo on Facebook and wrote about Kaiden’s gesture. They wanted to find him, and find him they did.

The post has been shared more than 1,000 times, and a story published Tuesday by the Sun Herald spread through media websites and newspapers around the country.

The O’Keefes invited Kaiden to the family’s Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes after school Wednesday. They had a big thanks and a few surprises for him.

They gave him a black cap with “World War II Veteran” stitched on the front. It was in one of the flower arrangements at Jerry O’Keefe’s funeral.

Kaiden also received a commemorative coin made for O’Keefe’s 90th birthday. On one side it showed the Corsair he piloted over Okinawa during World War II and the number “7,” representing the number of kamikaze pilots O’Keefe shot down. On the opposite side was an image of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art that Jerry O’Keefe helped fund and raise money to build in honor of his late first wife, Annette.

Kaiden received a few other treats, too, most notably a pocket knife. In one of the books the O’Keefes gave him, Jeffrey O’Keefe, funeral home president and CEO, wrote, “The image of you standing in the rain with hand over heart will forever be etched in our lives.”

Jerry O’Keefe’s widow, Martha O’Keefe, said: “It touched my heart to see him out there. It was just such an honor to see that little boy standing there with his hand over his heart in the rain.”

Kaiden handed his mom, Amy Wade, his loot, but held onto the pocket knife as the O’Keefes led him and his family next door so he could see a horse-drawn carriage built in the early 1800s. O’Keefe’s casket had been transferred from a motorized hearse to a similar horse-drawn carriage a little further up the road from where Kaiden stood during Saturday’s procession.

Kaiden was excited to see a funeral carriage. Jeffrey O’Keefe allowed Kaiden to climb up into the driver’s seat. His sister, Anastasia, joined him while his parents, Kevin and Amy Wade, looked on.

“The next time we saddle up,” Jeffrey O’Keefe told Kaiden, “I’m going to give you a call.”

“I like it,” Kaiden said. “I mean, it’s slower than a hearse but, so what?”

Kaiden seemed fascinated with the cremation urns and coffin samples on display in the building. He particularly liked an urn with a large-mouth bass mounted on the front.

He recently attended his great-grandfather’s funeral in Richton, where he insisted on posing for a photograph with a new pearl-white Cadillac hearse. Kaiden’s great-grandfather was a World War II veteran, too.

Kaiden was pretty amazed by all the attention he got Wednesday. People pulled out cameras and smartphones to video his visit with the O’Keefes.

Kaiden’s demeanor on the roadside Saturday reminded some of the 13 O’Keefe children of their father, a man known for the respect he showed others regardless of their station in life.

Kaiden played down his behavior.

“The rain didn’t bother me,” he said, “because I’m a kid and we like to be in the rain a lot.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99