When the Keefes moved to the St. Albans section of Queens in 1928, the principal at the local public school wouldn't accept Jack; he wanted the boy sent to a special school. His parents didn't believe in special schools. Fortunately, Jack was already too good an athlete to be labeled "disabled," and he gained admission to another public school. As a high school senior in 1933, Keefe won the 100-meter backstroke at the Long Island inter-scholastic championships.
Keefe, however, knew that his leg would prevent him from ever becoming a top-flight collegiate swimmer. So at St. Francis College in Brooklyn he turned his attention to water polo, which required less speed but more stamina. He played goalie on the Central Queens YMCA team that won the Junior Nationals in 1935 and finished second in the Seniors the next two years. He also practiced with the powerful New York Athletic Club team.
"When I first met him, the first day of college, he was on crutches, with his shriveled leg dangling like a dead leaf," says Rynne. "One day he said he'd like me to come over and watch him work out at the New York Athletic Club. I laughed. What was he doing at the NYAC? I went and saw that he was playing water polo with some of the best players in the world. And he was good. That's when I began to evaluate what kind of person was in there. He had the heart of a lion."
In 1938, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, who knew Keefe through the NYAC, thought an active young man who had had polio could help his friend, President Roosevelt, in Warm Springs, Ga. "The judge used to call him Franklin," says Keefe. "Why he thought I would be good at Warm Springs, I don't know. He said that Franklin would love me."
Keefe, who for 40 years made his living in public relations by following up on things—sending cards, keeping track of fund-raising donations, remembering people's names—didn't follow up on the Warm Springs offer. "That was the great mistake of my life," he says. "This was the President of the United States. The judge figured I'd have a job in the Administration and be playing water polo in the White House pool. But in the back of my mind was that idea of working with the handicapped. I had always tried to stay away from them—cripples."
Keefe was an interventionist, and before Pearl Harbor he tried unsuccessfully to join the Allied forces in Europe. Later, the U.S. armed forces also rejected him because of his leg. So, during the war Keefe served as an accountant in the U.S. Engineering Department. He served stints in Trinidad, British Guiana, Brazil and the Yukon Territory. One of the bookkeepers in the Yukon was Wanda Davis.
"I worked in payroll, so I saw all the records," she says. "The records would come in about a month ahead of the men. I knew about Jack before he got there. I knew he was single. Some of the men wouldn't tell you if they were married." On July 24, 1944, Wanda and Jack were married in Widewater, Alberta, and shortly thereafter they moved to Queens.
Two of their nine children served in the Army during the Vietnam War. But Kevin, their second child, wouldn't go. Kevin's decision kept father and son apart for 10 years, but they have reconciled. Kevin, too, has taken up swimming; he swam across the English Channel on Sept. 10, 1985. A follower of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian mystic and yogi, he has changed his name to Adhiratha. Jack now wears Sri Chinmoy sweatshirts to masters meets.
"When I was growing up, I didn't understand my father's interest in competitive sports," says Adhiratha. "What has changed my mind is that his friends from sports—the people he swam against—are the ones he has had for life."
At the Masters nationals last summer in Oregon, Keefe looked over at the start of the 200-meter backstroke and saw Albert Vandeweghe (Ernie's and Kiki's cousin once removed) in the next lane. The last time the two men had seen each other was at an intercollegiate meet in 1937 at Jones Beach on Long Island. Keefe thinks Vandeweghe won.