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DON O'KEEFE '81, A MAN OF CARMEL FROM THE START

Recently Marty Plys '76 returned to Mount Carmel to speak to a group of students honored at a Straight A Breakfast.  Read his interesting story about life at Mount Careml and beyond. Click here to read more...
Like so many others who walked the halls at 6410 S. Dante, I was born into a Mount Carmel family. My dad, Bill, was a member of the Class of 1938, and my mom, Celeste, graduated from Loretto Woodlawn (just south of what is now Carey Field). Like my father (whose brother graduated in 1937), I followed my brothers to MC – Fr. Mike ’65, Pat ’68, and Tom ’78. As a matter of fact, I was born the summer between Mike’s sophomore and junior years – so I have been coming to Carmel literally my whole life. Our family ties to MC began when my grandmother attended a parish mission at St. Francis de Paula that was led by a Carmelite priest, Fr. Frederick Mannion, and was impressed enough by his message that she decided to send her two sons to Carmel to be educated by the Carmelites. My two older brothers both entered the Carmelite Seminary upon graduating from MC, which meant that my family had a special relationship with the Carmelites during my childhood. It was natural for one or more Carmelites to stop in for dinner – Fr. Mike Flynn, Fr. Thaddeus O’Brien, Fr. Jim (Shiel) Mullen spent hours at our house. In the 70’s, the Carmelites drove the activity bus and knew they could count on a hot meal from Celeste O’Keefe at the end of the line, and I recall many of them (Fr. Dave Dillon, Fr. Jim Wilson, then Bro. Sean Daly, Fr. Bob Carroll, Fr. Robert E. Lee) stopping in for a bite to eat. Yet with all of this history, I never once heard the words “You have to go to Mt. Carmel”. I guess it was just assumed by all parties. But, make no mistake, I wanted to go Carmel!

 

WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER MOST ABOUT YOU 4-YEAR EXPERIENCE ABOUT MC? I'M SURE YOU CAN SPEAK OF THE GREAT FUN THAT MC WAS DURING THAT TIME. FOOTBALL & HOCKEY GAMES, PEP RALLIES, FRIENDS THAT YOU MADE & STILL HAVE.

As much as I couldn’t wait to attend MC, I remember being really nervous when the day actually arrived. I didn’t know anyone else in my class, and I carpooled to school with a group of 5 seniors – my brother Tom, Dave Stanton, Pat McCarthy, Bob Long, and Mark Waver (May he rest in peace). I was an obnoxious Benny, and they let me know it. Once we got to school, I remember wondering why there was a grown man with a mustache sitting behind me in homeroom! More curious, why was Marty Rogers seated in alphabetical order in the middle of the O’s for 4 years of high school? It didn’t take long to realize that my legacy story wasn’t a special one. Many of my classmates followed their dads, brothers, or uncles to Carmel – Bob Ryan, Brian O’Connell, Mike Ambuul, Brian Molloy, Bill Drew, Matt Raymond, Tim Brne, Tom Duffner, Mike McElheny, Mike Deering, Keith Zelenika, John Loncar, Jim Rosner, Greg Schweiger, Greg Sichak, Pete Vrdolyak, Russ Merritt, Jerry O’Shea, Mark Misovich, Pat Supple, Chris Kabat, Marty Mikulich, Mike & Dan Kintner, Dan, Marty, and Pat Walsh. I apologize if I missed anyone. I recall being a bit overwhelmed by the many different neighborhoods and parishes represented at Carmel. Traveling to Woodlawn and to those many neighborhoods over the ensuing 4 years was an education in itself. 
My freshman year, the football team began the school year with a bang – including knocking off St. Laurence (or Lawrence), which was then the big dog in the CCL. The games were exciting, and one of the few places a freshman could hang out with their friends from different neighborhoods. Bill Barz turned the football program around in our 4 years, culminating in the 1980 State Championship at ISU. Seeing my classmates take home the first Carmel football State trophy was an outstanding memory that I will never forget. The hockey program was unparalleled at the time and won the Kennedy Cup and one State title in the 4 years while I was at MC. The hockey games were exciting and PACKED, and the celebrations after the games were legendary! The basketball team knocked off the #1 team my senior year – at the old De La Salle – in a game in which Derrick McMillan simply took over. The pep rallies, Walkathons, bus rides, IC rides, the activity bus (and hoping the 95th Street bridge was up, so we could hit Calumet Fisheries)…There are too many memories to share – but we always found a way to have fun together at Carmel.
Despite my obnoxiousness, I was lucky enough to have made many friends while we were students at MC, and feel Blessed to still count them as my friends, and have become friends with other classmates since we graduated. I also feel blessed to have met so many great people THROUGH my MC friends and forged friendships with older and younger Men of Carmel. It’s a slippery slope to start naming names, but there is a group of friends that I have kept in touch with since we left MC, a group of guys I became friends with after we graduated, and a group of friends who I don’t get to see enough of these days. I do need to credit Dan Walsh with being extremely good at keeping in touch with people, and it was at a gathering of friends that he helped organize in 1986 that I met my wife, Cathy. Three Carmel guys stood up in our wedding – my brother Tom, and classmates John Lynch and Joe Torres. 
There are, obviously, other schools out there where I could have received a quality education, made great friends, and had great times. We all have friends who went to other schools and treasure their experiences. But we went to Carmel, so our experiences were unique to us and bond us forever.
I would like to close by remembering one of the saddest times during our time at MC. During the Thanksgiving weekend our senior year, we lost our classmate, Matt Josephson, in a tragic car accident. Being confronted with our mortality at that age was surreal to most of us at the time, and that memory has never left me. I met Matt our freshman year on the after school cleaning crew working to pay off our tuitions, and he was bright, funny, and genuinely a NICE GUY. Since we graduated, we have lost other classmates – John Loncar, Tim Murray, Jeff Bailey, David Brown, and Darren Day. May they all rest in peace.

HOW DID YOU FEEL HAVING YOUR SONS CARRY ON THE O'KEEFE FAMILY LEGACY AT MC?

Much like my experience, I never once said to my sons, “You have to go to Mount Carmel”. You don’t need to say that when you have brainwashed them since birth. All kidding aside, as mentioned previously I met my wife, Cathy, through her cousin and my classmate, Dan Walsh, so she knew many Men of Carmel and was fully onboard with our sons continuing the family legacy at Carmel. That had to be the first step, but since she had 8 first cousins who went through Carmel (Dan, Matt ’83, John ’84, Mike ’86, Joe ’89, and Kevin ’98 Walsh and Jim ’86 and Mike ’92 LaMantia) she definitely recognized the loyalty to MC among the alumni. Given my history with Carmel, it was natural for me to take my sons to MC functions from the time they were born. My older son, Liam ’08, started attending games with my Dad and I. The reason I wanted them to go to Carmel was simple – I wanted them to have a similar experience to the great one I had in high school. Once the day came for Liam to actually attend Mount Carmel, I realized the pride and happiness my father felt to see his sons have the experience of becoming a Man of Carmel. And I got to experience that joy with a classmate as well, as Marty Roger’s son, Pat, was Liam’s classmate. Naturally, my younger son, Conor ’15, followed his dad and brother to MC. I am so proud that they are both Men of Carmel, as it will serve them well for their entire lives, but no more proud of them than I am of my 3 daughters – Brigid, Maggie, and Delia. My only regret is that my folks didn’t live long enough to attend any of their graduations.

WHO WERE YOUR FAVORITE TEACHERS AT MC? WHO WAS YOUR GREATEST INFLUENCE?

Obviously, my greatest influences were my parents and my brothers and sisters (Kathleen, Diane, Celeste, Terri, Mary, and Beth). Before I address the question about teachers who influenced me, I would like to acknowledge some others in the Mount Carmel family that clearly had an influence on me. My experiences in high school of being welcomed into the homes and hearts of many Carmel families, such as Rita & Dan Walsh, Jean & Jack Lynch, Collette & Simon O’Connell, Mary & John Ambuul, Carol Drew, Betty & John Raymond, continues to guide me today in how to treat my children’s friends and welcome them into our home with respect and kindness.
But back to the dedicated teachers at MC…

Foremost, I would like to acknowledge the fact that, for the most part, the faculty at Carmel when I went there treated the student body as young men and with respect – until one proved he was NOT worthy of that respect. They simply helped teach us to be good men. There were many teachers who I look back on fondly – Sean Daly, Fr. Bob Carroll (whose classes were more challenging than any I took in college), Fr. Jim Wilson, Nick Iosue, Joe Gilbert, Jay Strubel, Kevin Taylor, and the Commander, Jim Gawne. I still wonder how Margaret Barz put up with me for two years in Spanish class?

In retrospect, I thought that the teachers who understood the students best were themselves Mount Carmel alumni, and I think that continues to this day. In my day, it included Fr. Dave Dillon, who is the reason MC is still open at 6410, and my brother, Fr. Mike. Having your brother as a teacher was not ideal for a teenager – or for him. But Mike saw through my lack of effort and BS, and demanded my best from me – and I am eternally grateful to my brother for righting my ship and putting me on the right track back in HS.

Outside of family, my greatest influence at MC was undoubtedly Matt Smith ’47. Mr. Smith was a brilliant man and a great teacher, but he was also my boss for about 25 years. Matt had hot dog stands in Jackson Park and on the downtown museum campuses for many years, and later had beer stands at Soldier Field – and hired many MC men who were paying their own ways through high school and college. The first day I worked for Mr. Smith was the summer before I entered MC (1977) outside the Field Museum for the King Tut exhibit, and the last time I worked for him was 2002 when Soldier Field was rebuilt. He treated those of us who worked for him as trusted and capable young men and left us alone to do our jobs. I don’t want to leave anyone out here, but I worked with so many great families for Mr. Smith – Duffy's, Gilbert's, Kintner's, Floods, McGarrys, McQuillans among them – and I received quite a supplemental education in my years working for Snuffy! He was generous, humorous, and kind to his charges, and I am forever grateful to Mr. Smith. Every Christmas when I watch A Christmas Carol, I think of Matt Smith when Scrooge recalls with fondness the memories of Old Fezziwig.

HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN THE ALUMNI ASSOCIATION AFTER COLLEGE?

It was as simple as being asked by Rich Mosior ’82 to get involved. I soon found myself sitting next to Jim Van Buskirk ’82, to make sure I didn’t miss any of the insight and entertainment he added to the meetings. Seriously, I was taught by my parents to give back for the Blessings sent your way. I feel that I can never fully repay Mount Carmel for what it has done for me. I met my wife and have 5 wonderful children through Mt. Carmel, and the friendships I have forged throughout the years with fellow MC alumni have been tremendous. It has been a pleasure to work alongside some of the most dedicated and loyal Carmel guys over the past 25 years in the Alumni Association, but if I work to benefit Mount Carmel until the day I die, I don’t think I can ever balance the ledger between myself and Mount Carmel High School. 
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