Memorial Held for DVC Instructor James O’Keefe

Linda Wolf

DVC English professor James O’Keefe, who died of cancer in December, was honored for his “great humor, great outrage” in a memorial service May 6 on a sunny afternoon beside the DVC duck pond.

More than 40 people gathered for the occasion, smiling, hugging and reflecting on O’Keefe’s life as a teacher, friend and colleague. He was 53 when he died Dec. 9, just over a year after having been diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Attendees included his mother, Charlotte O’Keefe, his wife, Suzanne Helfman, and his oldest son, J. Devin O’Keefe.

Although his family held a memorial service in early January at his Fremont home, it was DVC’s chance to pay tribute.

“It seems impossible to do it right,” said English instructor Judy Myers.

She said O’Keefe would be honored through an annual monetary award in his name to a student (or students) for some kind of literary endeavor.

The first such award, Myers said, would be for the winner of a graphic short story contest, since O’Keefe, “an amazing creative writer” himself, had established a new literature course, “The Graphic Novel,” before he became ill.

“Everything he did was all about the students,” said business instructor Carolyn Seefer, pointing to his involvement on the Scholarship Committee, the Distance Learning Task Force, the Faculty Senate and the faculty union, United Faculty.

Much of the memorial service focused O’Keefe’s wit, creating a joyful atmosphere throughout the event.

“One of the things about having James around that was really exciting and fun was what I found in my mailbox,” said English instructor Tom Barber, producing chuckles from the crowd.

O’Keefe had a reputation for making odd CD compilations for his co-workers and leaving chocolates and obscure newspaper articles in their mailboxes.

Yet he will be best remembered as a bold advocate.

A Sept. 11, 2008 story in the student newspaper, The Inquirer, quoted O’Keefe as saying in regards to controversy over classroom downsizing: “I hope the faculty aren’t intimidated and don’t start self censoring, if they have a critique to make of district policy.”

According to co-workers, he modeled that wish.

“He was one of the most intelligent, witty, outspoken people I’ve ever known,” said Seefer, who was hired full time in 1996, the same year as O’Keefe. “You always knew what was on his mind, and I respected him greatly for it….I don’t think anyone could be as brave.”

O’Keefe made such an impact “he will always be here,” she added.

Barber, who was master of ceremonies for the event, said, “He stood up for the oppressed. He wanted them to fight, inspired them to fight.”

Fletcher Oaks, a part-time digital media instructor, said, “He was the one full-time faculty member who never stopped fighting for part-time rights, practically till the day he died.”

O’Keefe’s DVC colleagues will plant a cascading red Japanese maple in the “accreditation garden” in his memory just outside the English/Social Science Division office.

Contributions to the annual James O’Keefe Prize may be made via the DVC Foundation to be used as prize money and to publish the winning student’s work annually. Checks may be sent c/o “James O’Keefe Prize” to the DVC Foundation, an incorporated, nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization, 321 Golf Club Road, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523.