2015-10-28 / News

Everyone was family to ‘Commodore’ O’Keefe

BY MARGARET WHITMER Reporter


Bert O’Keefe Bert O’Keefe When Mike Phillips was a student at Cros- Lex Middle School, he once got a touch of Principal Bert O’Keefe’s paddle.

“I don’t even remember what I did now,” recalls Phillips, who later in life became principal of Sandusky High School. “He knew me. He knew my parents. But some teacher had sent me and he always supported his staff, so he said, ‘This is going to hurt me worse than it will you.’”

The paddle stung, but Phillips wasn’t bitter; and Principal O’Keefe made it all up later, mentoring Phillips when he started his career as a substitute teacher in his building.

“Sometimes he would take me aside when things went wrong and give me advice,” Phillips told friends and family who, on Monday, Oct. 19, attended a memorial service honoring O’Keefe - a lifelong educator and community activist.

“Throughout my career I’d reflect back on Mr. O’Keefe and think, ‘What would he do?’”

O’Keefe also taught Phillips the art of sailing and they became longtime sailing companions.

Bertram H. O’Keefe, 92, passed away peacefully on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 at his home in Lexington.

During his memorial service in Trinity Episcopal Church, Lexington, many reflected on how O’Keefe and his wife, Merle, always treated friends like family, and family like friends.

Bert’s son, Port Sanilac Business Manager Larry O’Keefe, said his father touched many, many lives.

“Dad had a positive impact, whether it was at work, in the neighborhood, in the community, this church or his family,” he said. “All of you here today are a testament to the many people’s lives my father touched and I want to thank all of you for coming to his memorial.”

Bertram O’Keefe was born July 6, 1923 in Delaware, Ohio, the son of Marion and John O’Keefe. Bert and Merle were married New Year’s Day, 1942.

After graduating from Delaware High School, Bert enlisted in the Navy and served as an aerial reconnaissance photographer during WWII. Following the war he attended Michigan State University, where he received his undergraduate and Masters degrees.

As staff photographer for the college newspa- per, he had the best seat in Spartan Stadium.

“Last week he talked about the upcoming game between MSU and U of M and I like to think he interceded from beyond in that last bizarre play leading to a win for his beloved Spartans,” his son joked.

O’Keefe taught world history for many years at Croswell-Lexington High School and retired after 20 years as principal of Croswell-Lexington Middle School.

He was an avid sailor and along with Dr. John R. Bell founded the Bark Shanty Sail Club in 1972. Everyone knew him as “Commodore” and he taught young and old the fine art of sailing.

He served on the Vestry of Trinity Episcopal Church and was a Free Mason.

He was president of the Sanilac County United Fund from 1980-1987. He also served on the Board of Directors for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of the Bluewater area and was part of a faith-based family and children services group.

Croswell-Lexington Middle School’s annual Bert O’Keefe Citizenship Award is a reflection of his passion for community service.

Always proud of his Irish heritage, Bert and his wife Merle served as Grand Marshals one year at Lexington’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

O’Keefe worked construction in college and continued to use that skill all of his life.

“He built the houses we lived in, helped to fix other people’s houses and bought and remodeled the house my grandmother lived in after her home in California burned in a brush fire,” Larry O’Keefe said.

“Dad was not only a fantastic father, he was very gentle and helpful to his grandchildren. I can tell you that he never made them choose between the paddle or a phone call to their parents.”

O’Keefe’s granddaughter Lauren, of Chicago, said he had retired as an educator before she was born.

“But I remember being approached many, many times by adults in the community with their personal stories and experiences of him, and being amazed by how everyone knew him,” she said. “Even when they jokingly recounted how many times they had gotten the paddle, they were all fond memories of him.

“Now that I am older, and I have learned more about his career and his role in the community, I recognize the consistency in his life...A life well-lived is one in which your values are applied to and impact every sphere of your life. Grandpa Bert certainly meets that definition.”

As his last service to humanity, O’Keefe donated his body to Wayne State University medical school.

He is survived by his wife Merle of Lexington; three sons Larry and Dennis of Lexington and Scott of Lake Orion; and his five grandchildren—Micah, Lauren, Katharine, Allison, and Melissa O’Keefe—and one great grandson Hayden O’Keefe.

He was preceded in death by his twin brother, Bernard.

Memorials may be sent to Trinity Episcopal Church, 5646 Main St., Lexington, MI, 48450.

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