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Column: Remembering Jim Keane, the ultimate happy warrior

Much of South Buffalo will sadly observe Christmas this weekend following the death of Jim Keane, the quintessential Irish pol ingrained into Western New York politics for the last 35 years.

The former South Council member, deputy county executive and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for several offices died Monday at 70, shocking those who knew he was having minor surgery, and then encountering complications he could not overcome.

We’re not exaggerating when we say much of South Buffalo. That’s what happens when two of the city’s best known and largest political clans marry into each other, as did Keane and Margaret Whalen back in April 1969.

Keane ventured into the political world with a natural voting bloc; one of 16 children born to Richard and Kate McKenzie Keane. His brother – Dick – served many years in the Assembly. Another brother – Neil – became Buffalo fire commissioner. His wife broke an ancient taboo as one of Buffalo’s first female firefighters, eventually rising to deputy commissioner.

Ditto for the Whalens who’ve elected enough Council members and judges to constitute a quorum just about anywhere.

Keane’s detractors argued he could never win “the big one.” Sure, he was elected several times to the Common Council from the South District, but failed in a bid for Congress against Jack Kemp in 1986, against Dennis Gorski in the Democratic primary for county executive in 1987, and again for county executive in 2007 against Republican Chris Collins.

But that doesn’t mean even those who beat him didn’t recognize his political smarts. Gorski immediately formed his own team of rivals by drafting Keane into his general election campaign after the 1987 primary. He then named him emergency services coordinator and eventually deputy county executive.

James P. Keane, former deputy county executive, dies

Gorski, now a Cheektowaga town justice, on Tuesday recalled Keane as “a wonderful person who had a great sense of humor.”

“If there was any success in my administration – and I would categorize my administration as successful – it was a reflection of Jimmy Keane as well as others,” he said.

Current officeholders like Mayor Byron Brown also relied on Keane through the years.

Brown called him "a valued and trusted colleague and friend, and the consummate public servant."

When Hillary Clinton won her Senate seat from New York in 2000, she too recognized Keane as the man to run her Buffalo office.

Rep. Brian Higgins immediately sought Keane to manage his rookie campaign for Congress against Republican Nancy Naples in 2004. Washington Democrats offered all kinds of experts. Higgins summoned his own political pro – someone from the neighborhood who relished every aspect of the art of politics.

If Gov. Al Smith was the original “happy warrior,” Higgins said Tuesday, Keane perfected the genre.

“In life we all need to know someone who can lift spirits,” the congressman said. “Jimmy Keane had that gift.”

Higgins recalled an “aggressive political player who never got personal,” Keane’s “highly retentive mind,” and his gift for storytelling.

“He could recall more stories and retell them using every literary license he needed to make them colorful,” he said. “If you were around him you did a lot of listening. You had no choice.”

Just a few days ago, Keane found himself bellied up to the mahogany of the Creekview Restaurant with a couple of old friends – and yes – a reporter. He relished stories of old ward bosses like Kaisertown’s Stanley Stachowski, of labor leaders he sought for coveted jobs at the Hamburg Race Track or Lehigh Valley Railroad – and how you had better not cross them because jobs were tough to get.

Jerry Whalen, Keane’s brother-in-law, pal, and presiding justice of the Appellate Division’s Fourth Department, recalls the time his family and the Keanes traveled through Ireland together.

During one village pub session, Keane impressed the locals by rattling off the first and second verses of some ditty. But when he kept going with stanzas three and four...

“Oh my God,” Whalen recalled, as the locals’ reaction. “The Yank knows all the verses.”

But Keane’s favorite stories dwelled on growing up on Kingston Place with 15 brothers and sisters. The Keane brothers living barracks style in the attic; the girls downstairs.

“He probably had more room during basic training in the Air Force,” Whalen said.

Maybe you learn something along the way, growing up in such a home. Maybe such a home teaches you how to get along with people after you fight for the last drop of hot water in the house. Keane seemed to leave Kingston Place with a unique ability to make friends, even of opponents.

He won his Democratic primary for county executive against former West Seneca Supervisor Paul Clark in 2007, but lost to Collins in the general election. Most observers at the time theorized the then-grizzled pol had been around too long, that the city guy couldn’t compete with the wealthy suburbanite who promised to run county government like a business.

Could be. But his friends never judged him by wins or losses. Whalen remembers an Air Force veteran who returned from Thailand during the Vietnam War to join the Fire Department, marry Margaret Whalen, put himself through Canisius College, start a family and be active in the community.

“He saw people and asked how he could help,” the judge said. “His legacy – whether in the military, as a firefighter, elected official or public servant – was all about service. And he enjoyed it.”

Besides his wife, Keane is survived by two sons, Sean and James Jr.; two daughters, Katie and Meg, and all those brothers and sisters.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Teresa’s Catholic Church, 1974 Seneca St.

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