Edward Keehan, World War II veteran and Westport icon, dies at 84
Edward Keehan wasn't a selectman, a state representative or a member of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM). He wasn't a coach of a state championship football team.
However, Edward Keehan -- a World War II veteran who didn't get his high school diploma until he was in his mid-70s -- made his own mark in Westport.
If it wasn't for Keehan's drive and determination, Westport's World War II-era vets wouldn't have a monument paying tribute to their years serving this country. The old honor roll, which once stood in front of the old Town Hall on the Post Road, and was also depicted on a 1943 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, was tossed into a dumpster in the early 1980s, according to Keehan.
Upset over its demise, Keehan eventually went to work to replace it with a new honor roll. He spent countless hours at the Town Clerk's Office going through military discharge record books to make sure everyone who served during war time would be included on the honor roll; he raised money with others' help and he found an architect and a builder.
Keehan, who died Saturday at the age of 84, is now with his fallen comrades.
One would think going forward with something to honor veterans would be rather easy. But it wasn't. There were residents who didn't like the planned brick construction; there were residents who didn't like the fact this "brick wall" was going to be placed next to the granite statute of the Doughboy, a monument that honors World War I veterans.
Through it all, Keehan never gave up. It was a seven-month effort to make the new honor roll a reality. The ceremonial unveiling took place in November 1998. Then-First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell never opposed the honor roll or its planned location on the Town Common, now known as Veterans Green and, as a result, Keehan was a fan for life for the "support" and "respect" she showed to Westport's World War II veterans.
Whenever Farrell hosted her Brown Bag Luncheons, you could often count on Keehan to say a few nice things about Farrell, even years after the honor roll was erected. Farrell knew Keehan had a good heart. In fact, at her final Brown Bag Luncheon -- in November 2005 -- she made sure he was the last person to have the microphone.
Farrell said in an e-mail yesterday: "Eddie loved Westport and was so proud of his participation in World War II. His passionate dedication to remembering those who served our country so ably led to the construction and dedication of the WWII honor roll that rests on the town common."
"It is safe to say that his commitment and persistence toward that goal was the principal reason the project moved forward successfully."
Farrell added, "I am very grateful for his service to our country and the town he loved so much. His friendship meant a great deal to me."
Town Clerk Patty Strauss remembered Keehan visiting her office for about a month straight to go into the records vault, "open up the books and start doing his homework."
"He would meet us at 8:30 a.m. to open up the doors," said Strauss, who added, "He always had a smile on his face and he always told me a joke."
Keehan was proud of the role he played in restoring Westport's honor roll. It was, as the phrase goes, "his baby." However, Keehan once told me that he believed other veterans were jealous of him, jealous of the publicity he got from his effort to honor all of those that served. Some fellow veterans, once friendly with him, no longer spoke to him when he showed up at VFW Post 399 for lunch, dinner or other activities. Farrell used to tell him not to let it bother him.
Keehan was a proud veteran. Some might say he talked about his military service a little too much, or wrote too many letters to the editor related to the honor roll, but if he was any less passionate, Westport today would likely have no tribute to its World War II veterans, both men and women.
Keehan is only one name on the honor roll so he didn't get it erected for selfish reasons. There are 1,380 names across five bronze plaques. And Keehan's work for his contemporaries didn't end with the honor roll. He also helped Strauss locate veterans who moved out of Westport, or out of state, to come back to town to receive their high school diplomas 50-something years after they left Staples High School early to join the war effort.
Twenty-one veterans were notified their diplomas were forthcoming. Fourteen were able to make it to a graduation ceremony at Staples High School. They sat in the front row.
"It was quite an honor for those people," said Strauss, who last saw Keehan in October, at another event for veterans that involved Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz. Keehan was in a wheelchair and announced then that he had cancer.
Stephen Rubin, who serves on Representative Town Meeting from District 7, learned of Keehan's death Monday afternoon. He said Westport lost a "true hero, someone that exemplified the best of every veteran."
What will Rubin remember about Keehan?
"His dedication, his never taking no for an answer," he said. "He's the one that kept the memory [of the sacrifices of Westport World War II vets] alive."
Rubin said he himself is not a veteran but "he makes me wish that I was."
He added it wasn't all that surprising the opposition Keehan faced when he sought to bring a new World War II honor roll to Westport.
"Get 10 Westporters together and you have 27 opinions," said Rubin.
Despite differences, Keehan certainly had help on the new honor roll -- it cost $30,000 and many companies and individuals donated their time and money -- but McCarthy said Keehan was the "driving force" behind it.
"Ten, 11 years later, he'd still call us if there was a lightbulb out, a flag tattered, or if a flower had died," said McCarthy.
Keehan never forgot the people who helped him. He loved Farrell; he never stopped thanking me for writing the stories that helped him locate some veterans to receive their diplomas; and he always said hello to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Elliott Landon whenever he saw him at meetings. Keehan also made trips to Landon's office every so often, just to chat, "no agenda," as Landon said during a phone interview Monday afternoon.
In addition to restoring the honor roll, and helping the town find Westport veterans who left Staples early, Keehan also did something virtually unheard of for a man in his late 70s with limited education. He took the initiative to self-publish his first book, titled Battle for Honor, which chronicled his coming-of-age during the hardships of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II.
As the story goes, he left high school at 17 to enlist in the U.S. Navy. The book follows his assignment to a light cruiser, the USS Savannah, and to her subsequent fighting of Axis forces in North Africa and Europe, including being struck by a German 3,400 radio control bomb on Sept. 11, 1943, which inflicted more than 200 casualties. Keehan also writes about his assignment to another ship, the USS Saint Paul, which would do battle in the Pacific. The book also covers Keehan's re-adjustment to civilian life and, ultimately, his effort to see a new honor roll come to fruition in Westport.
Keehan, it should be noted, didn't write his first letter to a newspaper until he was 72. I would sometimes proof-read a few of his letters and once re-wrote a letter he would send to Tom Brokaw. I couldn't proof-read or re-write everything, though. His letters weren't literary masterpieces but the more he wrote, the better he became. And eventually he became a published author, distributing books to the Westport Historical Society as well as the Westport school system.
There is not a single full-time employee here at the Westport News who can say they are a published author, even self-published. Yet Keehan, who left high school early, can make that claim. And he wrote not one but two books. Memories of Life succeeded Battle for Honor. It also touches on various aspects of Keehan's life as well as the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001.
Before Memories of Life was published, Keehan was after me for permission to include two sketches I had done related to Sept. 11, 2001, in the book. As I drew them fairly quickly -- never expecting them to have a place of permenancy in a book -- I avoided providing Keehan an answer for some time. However, his tenacity prevailed. I eventually said "Yes" and gave him permission to use them.
Keehan was always a happy man but Landon remembers him most happy when the first book was published.
"That was the crowning moment in the short time that I knew him," said Landon.
Keehan, on numerous occasions, thanked me for encouraging him to "keep writing" back when he was just a letter-writer.
Keehan, who loved eating meals at the Peppermill restraurant in Westport (now located in Stratford), also used to sometimes fax items to the Westport News about things he had seen around town. If I recall correctly, he used to put the words "Street Beat" below his name.