We mourn, with Mississippi and the Coast, the passing of Jerry O’Keefe — war hero, businessman and civic leader.
But we also celebrate his life and his lasting legacy on the Coast.
As a young man, O’Keefe joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Congress last year recognized his bravery in World War II — an ace pilot, he shot down nine Japanese warplanes — with a Congressional Gold Medal.
After the war, he became a successful businessman, joining his father at O’Keefe Funeral Home. Today, it is Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Homes and its footprint on the Coast is considerable, including funeral homes and cemeteries. The family expanded into life insurance, Gulf National Life, which grew into the state’s largest provider of life and burial insurance.
He served a term in the state House, then eight years as Biloxi mayor. He was the force behind the Vieux Marche pedestrian mall; Biloxi’s northward expansion; and the opening of the city’s harbor to commercial shrimpers.
As mayor, he stood up to the Ku Klux Klan, revoking the racist group’s parade permit, an act that sparked vandalism and a cross-burning.
As a private citizen, he raised millions for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art and other charities. He and his wife, Annette, started the O’Keefe Foundation with a $10 million endowment.
Perhaps, though, he should best be remembered for his family.
Eleven of his 13 children survive him, as do several dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“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,” his family wrote. “In his later years, he would hand-cut and personally fry 10 chickens each Sunday morning for the O’Keefe family.”
And so, we will miss Jerry O’Keefe but his memory will live on in his businesses, his charity and his family.
The editorial represents the views of the Sun Herald editorial board. Opinions of columnists and cartoonists are their own.