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Vincent O'Keefe: Most likely to redefine what success means

A decade ago, Vincent O'Keefe was carefully dissecting William Blake's poem "Jerusalem" and arguing for pragmatist nonrealism as the best approach in writing fiction about the Holocaust.

These days, he rips a page out of his daily life for raw material for his writing -- getting beaned by a toilet seat lid while helping his toddler button her pants in a public restroom, for instance.

It's all in a day's work for O'Keefe, who quit teaching to become a stay-at-home dad seven years ago, when his daughter Lauren was born.

At the time, he was teaching in the University of Michigan's English department; his wife, West Seneca West grad Michele Colangelo, had just become an obstetrician. It made more sense financially for O'Keefe to take the lead on child care while she brought home a paycheck.

"The most important thing was that one of us was going to be at home," Colangelo said. "Parenting is a partnership; it doesn't necessarily have to be the mom."

O'Keefe, named most likely to succeed at Niagara Falls High School, attended Canisius College, where he met Colangelo and earned a bachelor's degree in English. Then, he earned a master's in English at Temple University, and a doctorate in American literature at Loyola University in Chicago.

He took a position at the University of Michigan.

On April 30, 2000, he turned in his final set of grades. Four days later, Lauren was born -- a colicky baby who had her father resorting to late-night car rides, seemingly endless runs of the vacuum, and, once, donning his wife's robe to calm the baby with Colangelo's scent.

The transition to full-time parenting, O'Keefe says, was "abrupt and unpleasant." But he has since found his footing as one of about 150,000 stay-at-home dads in the United States.

"This is definitely the hardest I've ever worked," O'Keefe said. "This is sometimes difficult to convey to men. I thought I knew how hard it might be, but I had no idea. It's a little easier now that they're older, but those first few years, I was shell-shocked."

Lauren, now 7, has been joined by Lindsay, 4, spunky girls who -- along with Sponge Bob and at least 30 stuffed animals -- share a bunk bed in their pink bedroom in Avon Lake, Ohio.

Like any suburban parent, O'Keefe spends quite a bit of his time on the road -- a "stay-in-van dad," he jokes -- shuttling the girls from their house to attend Ruffing Montessori School, explore the Cleveland Zoo or visit Colangelo's sisters, who were a primary reason the couple decided to settle in the Cleveland area.

His strength? Finding fun places for kid adventures. His weakness? Cooking remains a bit of a challenge, he admits.

He still gets the sarcastic "Gee, how'd you get that gig?" sometimes when he tells other men what he does -- but a more sincere, wistful "must be nice" is becoming a more common response.

After growing up with his mom and two sisters, he was no stranger to being the only guy in a room. But after a while, he yearned for some male peers. He put an ad in the Lakewood Early Childhood PTA newsletter and got responses from three other stay-at-home dads, who now meet regularly to unwind and swap stories.

In the past couple of years, O'Keefe has begun nurturing a freelance writing career, toiling at the computer once the girls are in bed. His personal essays already have landed in a variety of publications, from Northern Ohio Live, a regional magazine, to "What Would MacGyver Do?" a book edited by a former editor at Esquire.

Now, O'Keefe is working on breaking into national magazines with his humorous, self-deprecating essays. He also writes poetry to accompany photographs he has taken, selling the "Poetic Visions" at local shops.

"It's sort of funny -- I was voted most likely to succeed. I've had to redefine success," said O'Keefe. "When you have a professional identity, then you lose it, it can be rough. It certainly wasn't how I planned things out in high school."

But, he quickly adds, his relationship with Lauren and Lindsay can't be beat.

"I know them about as well as I can know them," he said, snuggling with them. "I do cherish that, and I acknowledge that is a luxury."

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