Jack McKeon

In Support of Freedom

On June 6, 1944 the combined forces of the United States, Great Britain and Canada stormed the Normandy beaches of France. The object of this endeavor wasn’t simply to defeat Nazi Germany, but to defend the very concept of freedom itself. We owe the combined air, sea and land forces of the Allied forces an immense debt of gratitude for what they did for us that day.

American historian Daniel Walker Howe once wrote, “When looking back at the past, things have an air of inevitability about them.” To put it generously, victory on D-Day was uncertain at best. Landing craft faced stormy seas crossing the English Channel. The logistics of coordinating an invasion this complex without the benefit of computers or satellite technology astonishes the modern mind. Upon reaching the European mainland forces then had to contend with Hitler’s ‘Atlantic Wall’ defenses. General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, even drafted a statement taking personal responsibility for the Allied defeat.

The fact that I have the freedom to write this and you have the freedom to read it shows that D-Day succeeded.

While drinking my morning coffee I reflected on this pivotal point in human history. I recalled the many afternoons I spent with my grandfather, Jack McKeon. He served in the 79th Infantry Division during the Second World War. Among the liberating forces, his unit was the second of what would become Lieutenant-General George Patton’s Third Army. While the “Cross of Lorraine” division didn’t take part in the initial landings, it did deploy in France on 12 June.

Several years ago on 6 June I told my grandfather’s story to a navy veteran with whom I work. Since my grandfather didn’t enter the fight on D-Day the man joked, “He had it easy!” Mr. McKeon and his two Purple Hearts would’ve disagreed.

While remembering my grandfather’s war stories I thought it sad so few WWII vets remain. I felt how nice it would be to thank one for his/her service on the 71st anniversary of D-Day. Just then an elderly African-American gentleman entered the café. The man wore a baseball cap with the words WWII Veteran embroidered on the front.

I thanked him for his service. He kindly smiled and shook my hand. “If it wasn’t for the support of people like you, we wouldn’t have made it,” he said.

I speak with a lot of veterans. They’re always very appreciative of the recognition, but this man’s comments really surprised me. I recall my grandfather telling me about the racism in the military during the 1940’s. All Americans know the social climate that existed here prior to the Civil Rights movement. It made me contemplate what kind of homecoming this veteran received upon returning from the war.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to thank a World War II veteran today. If you don’t happen to encounter someone who served in that conflict, there are plenty of veterans around. When you see one, please let them know how much you appreciate their service to our country.

Let us never forget: without the support of people like them on 6 June 1944, our freedom wouldn’t have made it.

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Requiem for a Philadelphian

Jack and Agnes McKeon Wedding Photo

Jack and Agnes McKeon Wedding Photo

McKeown Family Photo

McKeown Family Photo

This August 8th marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s passing. I can’t believe it’s been a whole quarter century since I’ve seen Pop Jack. The two of us spent a lot of time together during his later years. He lived a little over a mile away from my mom and dad’s house. On summer days, I’d take a walk over there to see him at least once a week. After all, I loved history and he’d lived it.

I remember strolling up to his house. He’d be sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette. “Hi, pal,” he’d greet me. Pop Jack would then talk about whatever came to mind. He’d describe his experiences as a Station Master with the rail road, his contagious love of baseball (especially the Phillies) and his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War. As a budding historian, I enjoyed the later the most. After his passing I inherited his army helmet. The metal still bears the mangled form it took when shredded by German shrapnel. The family kindly gave me his Purple Heart as well.

The City of Philadelphia held a special place in his heart. That was his other favorite topic of conversation. Pop Jack grew up on Olive Street in West Philly, and remained a Philadelphian in spirt for the remainder of his life. No one adored the City of Brotherly Love more than he did. I have a copy of letter Mayor Frank Rizzo sent him during the late 1970’s. His Honor expressed his appreciation for Pop Jack’s “support of the administration during the teacher’s strike.” My grandfather had been living in Riverton, NJ for close to twenty years at the time.

I also have his final driver’s license. While it clearly lists his address as Riverton, NJ, the State of Pennsylvania issued it. That shows me that while not a resident of the Keystone State, until the end of his life, he never really left.

It saddens me that Pop Jack didn’t talk about family more often. After my mother’s passing, I found some old family albums. I have a photo him with his mom (Elizabeth) and dad (Jack). I know very little about them. I also have my grandparents’ wedding photo taken January 23, 1943. My grandmother passed away before I turned three so I never got to know her. I don’t remember my grandfather discussing her.

Pop Jack wore thick, dark rimmed glasses that I wonder if he used to intimidate; or maybe hide behind. He didn’t express personal emotions very often. During Phillies’ games he’d be much more forthcoming with his thoughts and feelings, however; especially if that mood was anger. Like myself and many fans during the 1980’s I recall him becoming quite animated on a variety of occasions. His love of Phillies baseball paralleled his passion for the city they represented.

In all seriousness my grandfather suffered serious personal tragedies. He outlived both his spouses. My step-grandmother passed away a week before his 62nd birthday. As someone who’s lost a number of people close to him, I understand how difficult it can be to talk about loved ones no longer with us. It’s a lot harder for someone who displays a tough exterior.

Today Pop Jack lies buried at a quiet cemetery in Cinnaminson. Next to him is my grandmother, Agnes’ final resting place. His brother-in-law Joe Crowley is next to her. To his right is my grandfather’s oldest sister, Catherine. I’ve always thought it interesting that even in death there needs to be a buffer between the two McKeon siblings. (Hey, they started out as scrappy Irish kids from Philly.) The last time I saw my grandfather I was an immature teenager. Today I’m a man who’s had some of the same life experiences as Pop Jack. Whenever I visit his grave I wonder what he’d think of me today. Is there any greater tribute to a person than that?