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Former adjutant general George Keefe dies

  • MAJ. GEN. GEORGE W. KEEFE



Staff Writers
Sunday, June 24, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — Retired Maj. Gen. George W. Keefe, 79, of Northampton, died Thursday at Massachusetts General Hospital after a life brimming with close-knit Northampton family and friends and dedication to serving his country.

After 49 years of service, Keefe retired from the Massachusetts Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force in 2005 with the rank of 39th adjutant general of Massachusetts, and the federal rank of major general. He was the first Air Force officer to serve as adjutant general of the state — the seniormost officer in the National Guard.

When recently asked what he found most rewarding about his long military career, Keefe said: “I had the chance to meet and serve with the best men and women in the world, and my job was to take care of my soldiers, airmen, and their families,” according to his obituary. “That was my passion, and I hope I made a difference for them.”

Keefe’s military awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, Air Reserve Forces Meritorious Service Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, and the Armed Forces Service Medal.

The eldest of his four sons, Maj. Gen. Gary W. Keefe, is currently the adjutant general of the Air National Guard.

Gary Keefe said that he and his father not only shared careers in the military, going on two deployments together in Germany and Mississippi, but they also shared a love of Northampton and the clan of family and friends who have shared holidays and birthdays, barbecues and beach days together for many years.

“He was born at Cooley Dick in 1939 and lived in Northampton his whole life,” Gary Keefe said of his father. “We both married Northampton girls and raised our families here.”

Born on April 24, 1939, Keefe graduated from Northampton High School in 1956 and received an associate degree from Holyoke Community College in 1966.

Gary Keefe said he made the decision to leave active duty in the Air Force to move back to Florence, where he and his wife, Allison, have enjoyed sharing the Northampton community with his father, brothers and a big circle of family and friends. Christmas and Memorial Day are big festivities for the Keefe clan to get together.

Keefe was also active in coaching youth sports such as baseball and basketball, and was the president of both the Northampton High School boys soccer and lacrosse boosters.

“He coached me and my three brothers through the Northampton Recreation Department, from Farm League to Little League,” Gary Keefe said.

Keefe’s second eldest son, Brig. Gen. James Keefe, was a fighter pilot and commander of the 104th until his recent retirement. Patrick Keefe is the chief of police in Andover and is also a colonel in the Army Guard. Keefe’s youngest son, Timothy Keefe, is a detective with the Dover Police Department in New Hampshire.

Sweet tooth

Between his four children, Keefe had 13 grandchildren to enjoy taking to his beach house in Yarmouth on Cape Cod for lobster and clam bakes and “countless wiffle ball and miniature golf matches,” according to his obituary.

“And I gotta tell you, my father loved chocolate and sweets. His sweet tooth was peanut M&Ms and Jelly Bellies,” Gary Keefe said. “He had bags of them hidden around the house.”

His brother James Keefe said he just found some hidden jelly beans the other day and recalled his father taking a pinch of M&Ms or jelly beans out to snack on as he went about his daily business.

Keefe also leaves behind his older brother, Edward Keefe, who lives in Northampton and served 20 years in the National Guard.

James Keefe said their family has long western Massachusetts roots; the Keefes first immigrated from Ireland to Hadley in the mid-1800s, he said, and have spread out from there. He said his father was a success story.

Keefe’s father, a World War I veteran, passed away when he was 6 years old. Keefe and his brother Ed were sent to stay with relatives in Chicago while their mother underwent treatment for polio. When they returned, she had lasting mobility problems.

“He and Ed, they both made something of themselves,” James Keefe said. “It’s a great story of two young kids who worked hard and persevered, looked after each other growing up and really made something of themselves.”

Among the bigger moments in George Keefe’s job as adjutant general was Sept. 11, 2001, when he had to activate the Massachusetts National Guard to respond to the terror attacks on New York City involving two jetliners out of Logan Airport in Boston, James Keefe said.

He said his father instilled a “sense of service and the idea that you should do something to help people,” inspiring his children to military service like his own.

“It’s like a family to us, the military,” James Keefe said. “It didn’t feel like a job; it felt like a second home. It just felt like a part of who we are.”

Furthermore, he said, his father enlisted in the military, and never forgot his time as an enlisted service member. When he became an officer, his son said, it never changed the way he looked at people, no matter how high he rose in rank.

“He’d rather be out with the guys and gals fixing airplanes than sitting behind a desk,” James Keefe said.

St. Patrick’s toast

The boys’ mother, Kathleen (Savoie) Keefe, died in 2000. She and George were high school sweethearts who were married for 41 years.

After the passing of Kathleen, Gary Keefe said, his father became friends with Geraldine “Gerri” Kingkade. Their friendship blossomed, and when Kingkade moved to western Massachusetts, Gary Keefe said the large circle of Northampton family and friends “welcomed her right into the fold.”

Kingkade has been Keefe’s “loving partner and ‘Honey’” for 17 years, according to his obituary, and Gary Keefe said his father would call her three times a day if they were apart. When together, they liked to go to dinner at Joe’s Cafe in Northampton and socialize with a big group of friends made up of many longtime Northampton families.

Michael Ahearn and his late wife, Patricia, of Northampton, were some of those close friends of Keefe’s.

“General George and my wife, Pat, were classmates all through school,” Ahearn said. “In fact, they dated at one little time. When Pat and I got married, the friendship continued. We’ve done a lot and been to a lot of places with him.”

The Ahearns, along with their son Michael Jr., were original founding members of the St. Patrick’s Day Toast that Keefe dreamed up.

“It would be St. Patrick’s Day and we’d have to have a little whiskey, and it had to be a shot, to toast St. Patrick,” Ahearn said.

The ritual grew for some 25 years to eventually include the whole of Tully O’Reilly’s Pub and the Northampton St. Patrick’s Association, gathering each year to raise a shot of whiskey to the Emerald Isle’s patron saint. James Keefe took the reins from his father and now hosts the annual toast each year.

“We were all like a family, the Keefes and the Ahearns,” Ahearn said. “George, he would call me every other day and say ‘Mike, how’re you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘George, I’m doing alright, how’re you doing?’ He was a great man. I just can’t say enough about him.”

Michael Ahearn Jr. grew up friends with Keefe’s sons and echoed his father’s sentiments.

“The Keefe family was a second family to me,” Michael Jr. said. “He was a kind guy, a good father, a good friend.”

Michael Ahearn Jr. runs Ahearn Funeral Home, which will be handling the arrangements for a tribute to Keefe.

A wake will be held at the funeral home, 783 Bridge Road, Northampton, on Wednesday from 2 to 8 p.m. On Thursday, a funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, 99 King St., Northampton, with burial in St. Mary’s Cemetery on Bridge Road afterwards.

James Keefe said there will most definitely be a shot of Irish whiskey toasted to honor his father’s memory — or maybe a few shots for “a great, great man.”

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com. M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.