The community of Biloxi, Mississippi, was heartbroken when universally beloved local politician, businessman, and philanthropist Jeremiah O’Keefe passed away in September of 2016. So when his family pulled out all the stops for a beautiful funeral procession, everyone turned up to pay tribute.
O’Keefe was a decorated war hero, one of the renowned pilots who shot down Japanese aircraft during World War II as part of an impressive squadron known as the “Death Rattlers.” He shot down five Japanese planes during the first hour of his first mission, joining the war effort at just age 21 in order to fight for his country.
— Sun Herald (@sunherald) August 23, 2016
Once he returned to the United States, though, he didn’t leave his heroism back on the battlefield. He went on to become one of the biggest philanthropists in Mississippi, fighting in the Civil Rights movement and developing a reputation as someone who believed in equality and economic fairness. So after he’d served in the Mississippi State Legislature and as mayor of Biloxi during his lifetime, his memorial was filled with veterans and business owners alike who wanted to remember him fondly.
Nine-year-old Kaiden Wade, of Biloxi, didn’t know O’Keefe personally. But after learning how much time O’Keefe had spent fighting to make his country a better place, Wade wanted to pay tribute to the city icon in his own way—so when O’Keefe’s funeral procession turned down Porter Avenue in the neighboring town of Ocean Springs, the young boy made sure he was ready.
— Sun Herald (@sunherald) August 30, 2016
For over 30 minutes, the grade school student stood out in the rain by the side of the road, respectfully placing his hand over his heart as he patiently observed the entire funeral procession pass by. The gesture, which was spotted by the surviving O’Keefe family members, was quickly photographed in order to share such a touching moment.
“It was so touching to see that young man show such respect for Jerry,” said Martha O’Keefe, who is O’Keefe’s widow.
The gesture may have seemed surprising to the community, but the Wade family explained to the Sun Herald that it was hardly out of the ordinary for the 9-year-old. In an era filled with smart phones and video games, Wade’s mother explained that he lives by a simple philosophy; “you help your friends; you show your respect.” The young boy had been in Ocean Springs to help his grandmother, who had recently fallen and broken her pelvis when the funeral procession came through—and at his own grandfather’s funeral, the then-8-year old Kaiden had stood by the casket to greet every single mourner with respect.
Biloxi said goodbye to Jerry O'Keefe today. Look for full coverage later today on SunHerald.com. Photo by Tim Isbell
O’Keefe’s legacy in Mississippi is likely one that few know about but many benefit from. He was on the “Temperance Committee” in his home state in the 1960s, fighting to legalize the sale of liquor long after it had become the nation’s last “dry state.” And on the subject of his civil rights advocacy, he had refused to join a business fraternity that expressed interest in him until they allowed minorities to join as well.
He fought so fiercely for equality in the state that he had faced death threats by the Ku Klux Klan, yet continued to stand up for others—even revoking a parade permit for the KKK while he was mayor.
When his family saw Wade standing by the side of the road to honor their long-time patriarch, the O’Keefes said the young boy reminded them of the man of honor.
“This young fellow was the symbolism for the youth and vitality that was so present in my Dad,” said his daughter, Cecilia O’Keefe Neustrom. “You can’t put your finger on what it meant. He was all by himself and he was barefoot, just standing alone in the rain.”
The family was so grateful for the gesture that they had a surprise. After getting in touch with the Wade family on social media, they invited Kaiden out to the O’Keefe family funeral home—where they brought out an array of mementos of O’Keefe to share a piece of their heart with Wade for taking the time to honor him like that.
“The image of you standing in the rain with hand over heart will forever be etched in our lives,” the family wrote in a book given to Kaiden.