Jack Keefe always sits with his right leg crossed over his left. That's the way he has sat for nearly 70 years. In October 1916, 18 months after he was born, the poliomyelitis virus withered his right leg. It made the leg 4� inches shorter than the left one and no bigger around than a Little League bat barrel. Recalling the illness that would change his life, Keefe says quietly, "There were other children in our family, plus all the kids that I played with—the Schlesinger kids and the Greenfield kids, right next door to us. No one came down with polio except me. I was the chosen one."
The chosen one went on to become a superb swimmer with powerful shoulders and arms and a muscular torso that tapered to a slim waist. Keefe was one of the best high school swimmers on Long Island in the early 1930s and later one of the best water polo players in the country. He was, and is, a physical man. He bench-pressed 354 pounds in 1937, when he weighed only 147 pounds. In order to strengthen his upper body, he lifted logs over his head and walked down flights of stairs on his hands. He played baseball, football and handball. Today, at 71, he's one of the best masters swimmers in the country.
After not swimming competitively for almost 50 years, Keefe began entering masters events three years ago. Since then he has rarely finished out of the first five in national championships, and for the past two years, he has ranked in the top 10 in the 70-74 age division in a variety of backstroke events. At the 1985 Empire State Games in Buffalo, Keefe won the 50-, 100-and 200-meter backstrokes.
He got two fourths and a fifth at the National Masters Championships in Gresham, Ore., last August. His routine there was the same as it is at every meet. He sat on the concrete deck surrounding the pool, his back propped against the stands and his crutches and brace laid at his side. When the time came for one of his events, he hobbled to his lane, his right hand clutched around his right knee so that the arm could thrust the leg forward. He slid into the water, turned around and wrapped his hands around the railing of the starting block. He drew his left knee toward his chest while the foot pressed against the pool wall. The leg was poised to uncoil when he heard the gun. His right leg hung limply beneath him.
During a race Keefe's backstroke looks like everybody else's, but the splash from his leg kick is smaller. "I try to get some kick out of both legs," he says. "I have a pretty powerful left leg, but the other leg dangles. Someone joked that I might be better off if they had amputated that right leg so that I could lessen the drag. I guess he's right, but the hell with it."
On July 4, 1983, some 11 months before Keefe had begun swimming in competition again, William Rynne and his wife, Virginia, hosted their annual Independence Day cocktail party at their home in Tuxedo Park, N.Y. Rynne won the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II, during which he shot down five planes and later was shot down himself and tortured as a prisoner of war. Rynne knows something about heroism.
But when Rynne introduced his friend Keefe to his guests, he told them that his hero was Jack Keefe. Says Rynne, "People have given me many medals and dinners, but what I had was just physical courage. It doesn't compare to the spiritual courage of Jack. He's a genuine hero."
Although Keefe's leg kept the hero's hero out of World War II, it didn't stop him from competing in sports. "He was always first over the fence at the Valley Stream pool," recalls Jack Farrell, who has known Keefe since their boyhood days in Queens and was a teammate on their high school and college swim teams. "He used his crutches to vault over."
Keefe was part of an athletic family. "My father never pushed us, but he always had all the equipment ready," Keefe says. "He would play catch with me by the hour. I told him I was going to be a big leaguer. He never said anything but 'O.K.' " Before playing basketball at Seton Hall, Jack's younger brother, George, was a starting guard on the New York City championship team from Andrew Jackson High, the same school that produced guard Bob Cousy.
The best athlete in the family might have been Charlie, another brother. He died at age 14 while exercising in the basement of their house. He was doing chin-ups when he caught himself on a wire and was strangled. For weeks Jack's father would go to the basement and scream. Twenty-nine years later George was killed in a car accident, and that, too, traumatized Jack's father. "It was not exactly the kind of life that my father had envisioned," says Jack. "Two sons were killed and another had polio."