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Here’s one to put on your radar or perhaps you have just watched the movie The Burial starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones on Amazon Prime. Foxx portrays Willie E. Gary, an unconventional lawyer, who helps Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe, a funeral home owner, played by Jones, with financial troubles, save his family business from a corporate behemoth.
Southern Calls featured Bradford-O’Keefe in our 9th Issue back in September of 2015 and shared the true story on which the movie The Burial would be based.
We’re pleased to publish this select article online and proud to have covered so many important People, Places and Passions over the years.
It was all started by phytophthora infestans, a pathogen that attacks a plant’s leaves and leaves behind shriveled and inedible tubers. That’s what caused the Great Potato Famine in Ireland in the early 1800s, which cut the population of Ireland by some 25 percent over a 10-year period – more than 1 million perished and another million or so left the country in search of a new life.
Edward “Ned” O’Keefe was among them, traveling with his sister to the United States and landing in New Orleans. Ned’s sister married in 1853, and Ned ultimately settled in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where he worked as a laborer until he earned enough to buy his first piece of land on Porter Avenue on February 3, 1859. Edward “Keith” was listed as a $500 land owner on the 1860 census at the age of 45. Shortly after, he joined the Confederate Army in the Live Oak Rifles Company A, 3rd Mississippi Infantry as a private during the Civil War, forging a history of service to the military by the O’Keefes.
At the conclusion of the war, Edward O’Keefe returned home to work his land. He established a livery service and was occasionally called upon to transport the deceased to local cemeteries, ultimately leading to more formal funeral services for Gulf Coast families.
The O’Keefes operated in Ocean Springs until the third generation, Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe Jr., better known as “Ben,” coordinated a move to Biloxi in 1923, at a spot just across the street from the Nativity Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jeremiah “Jerry” Joseph O’Keefe III expanded the business with additional locations in Ocean Springs and acquired his competitor, Bradford Funeral Home, to create the formidable Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home, Inc.
Today, Bradford-O’Keefe consists of six funeral home locations, two cemeteries and Mississippi’s first crematory.
The company is led by Jeffrey O’Keefe, Sr. who is proud of the firm’s commitment to improve industry standards wherever possible. Jeff serves on the Mississippi State Board of Funeral Service while Arthur “Bubba” Lang and Jeff’s father Jerry have served their state association through the chairs and as president. Jeffrey O’Keefe Jr. and Arthur “Kippy” Lang, sons of Jeff and Bubba, are also dedicated to the business and its mission: “By understanding the legacy of commitment and pride our forefathers took in establishing this company, we understand the work ethic and level of excellence the past demands of us today.” Kippy is president elect of the Mississippi Funeral Directors Association.
1865 – 2015 Anniversary Celebration
Bradford-O’Keefe is celebrating its 150th anniversary of service to the families of the Gulf Coast throughout 2015.
While events are planned throughout the year, on June 5, the family hosted a gathering on the grounds of the Ocean Springs property where the business began so many years ago. The celebration began with the autographing of a commemorative book illustrating its 150 Year History. The coffee table book, which documents the origins of the business and the melting pot of nationalities and communities that Bradford-O’Keefe is privileged to serve, was autographed by Jeremiah J. O’Keefe Sr., the fourth generation patriarch of the O’Keefe family. It can be found online at www.bradford-okeefe150.com.
Jerry O’Keefe is a decorated World War II Marine Fighter Pilot. Originally there were 1,447 Ace Fighter Pilots in America. Of the 77 still currently living, about 30 of those attended a ceremony in Washington on May 21, 2015. Jerry was presented his Congressional Gold Medal for American Fighter Aces on June 5, 2015 in conjunction with the firm’s anniversary. Mr. O’Keefe will add this recognition to his Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Combat Medal.
Jeffrey H. O’Keefe Sr., president, hosted the anniversary celebration, and his son, Jeffrey H. O’Keefe Jr., representing the sixth generation, was in attendance, along with the Bradford-O’Keefe management team, staff and a host of community supporters.
Bradford-O’Keefe has persevered through many obstacles, as one might imagine, over the span of 150 years. Many students of the industry will recall a time when three large, publicly-traded funeral corporations were in a heavy acquisition posture to maintain growth rates that were driving revenues. It was during this time that Raymond Loewen of Vancouver, Canada acquired one of O’Keefe’s local competitors, making their firm a regional partner of his corporation.
Shortly after, a contractual dispute arose when the regional manager disregarded a business contract with O’Keefe. Efforts by Jerry O’Keefe to resolve the matter were met with a demand for the sale of his funeral homes, which were “not
for sale.” This breach of contract resulted in a settlement agreement, which also was disregarded by the Loewen Group.
O’Keefe, while using local lawyers, also engaged a high-powered attorney from Stewart, Florida – Willie Gary – for what was shaping up to be a long and extended trial in Jackson, Mississippi.
By the end of the trial, the jury had become so incensed by Loewen’s deceptive and predatory trade practices that the jurors sought to punish the Loewen Group and ultimately awarded a $500-million verdict. At the time, it was the third largest verdict in the history of the legal profession in America. The results of the trial were written about in The New York Times, Time Magazine and virtually every funeral publication imaginable.
After intervention by several investment bankers, Loewen agreed to settle the case prior to attempting one final unsuccessful appeal via the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) treaty. The terms of the settlement remain undisclosed, however, this chain of events caused a devaluation and/or re-evaluation of Loewen’s stock price. With the company experiencing tremendous uncertainty on its future, they ultimately sought reorganization protection. Later, Loewen emerged as Alderwoods and was ultimately acquired by Service Corporation International of Houston. In May 2013, SCI also acquired Stewart Enterprises and solidified its role as the undisputed leader of the funeral industry in America and beyond.
While natural disasters can occur anywhere, states located along the Gulf of Mexico are particularly prone to dealing with hurricanes. Katrina was the costliest hurricane in history. Its economic impact in Mississippi and Louisiana alone was estimated to exceed $150 billion. This category 5 hurricane claimed 1,836 lives, and bridges, historical residences, hotels, casinos, churches . . . you name it . . .
Bradford-O’Keefe sustained damage at every location. At the time, the company employed approximately 50 people, and at least 13 of them lost their homes and all their possessions. What did they do? “Worked with the clothes on their backs” stated President Jeffrey O’Keefe. It was the epitome of selflessness.
eff O’Keefe and Bubba Lang will never forget the outpouring of support from countless volunteers both in-state and around the country. At the time, Jeff was in a study group that met annually, and a team of these funeral home owners made their way to Mississippi from as far away as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, driving a horse trailer loaded with frozen food, generators, clothing, gas and cash for staff members who lost it all. Lang had just finished his term as At Large Representative to the National Funeral Directors Association and was instrumental in coordinating recovery efforts by and through the association and DEMORT – Disaster Emergence Mortuary Response Team.
It was several years before all of the O’Keefe properties were completely restored. The most important lesson for the future is never underestimate the potential risk of devastation based on a previous catastrophe.
Jerry O’Keefe is about giving back, serving as a state legislator, mayor and leader of organizations too numerous to mention. He co-chaired the capital campaign of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Work began in 1987, and the much-anticipated museum was successfully completed in 1991. In 1998, upon the death of his wife, Annette O’Keefe, who was the mother of his 13 children, Jerry conceived the idea to honor her memory and raise funds for the development of yet another museum facility, which would also honor a local potter. George Ohr’s work is recognized nationally. World renowned architect Frank Gehry was recommended to design the museum, and Jerry O’Keefe convinced him to take the job.
The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art was 95-percent complete when Hurricane Katrina devastated its campus in 2005. Once again, Jerry’s determination led to the re-construction and opening of the first quadrant of the campus in 2010. While the campus is 95-percent complete, it is open and operational and has housed major exhibits, including one featuring the work of Andy Warhol. During 2015, the focus has been on the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The museum is hosting a lecture series on the hurricane and featured speakers have included congressmen, governors, senators, first responders and volunteers, all in an effort to highlight the rebuilding and recovery of our Coast home.