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 4½ 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."
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.
Fifty years after Jones Beach and St. Francis College and the NYAC water polo team, Keefe is training again. He prepares for his masters meets by swimming five days a week at the Plain-view (N.Y.) YMYWHA. When he's swimming, it's difficult to see his bad leg in the churning water. Old friends like Rynne and Farrell haven't noticed it for years.