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The Rev. John Keene dies at 90

The Rev. John Keene, 90, an Episcopal priest, died Thursday, May 26, 2011, in the arms of his wife, Jeanneane, at Huguley Hospice House, Fort Worth, TX, after a long struggle with pulmonary disease.

He is survived by nine children, fifteen grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, a brother, many nieces and nephews, and the entire Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, which he served as priest, mentor, beloved thorn-in-the-side, and hero.

The funeral will be Saturday, June 4, at 1:00 pm at St. Christopher Episcopal Church, 3550 Southwest Loop 820, Fort Worth, TX 76133, reception following. Clergy may vest if they wish at 12:30 in the school rooms. Only altar flowers are permitted. Memorials can be made to the Episcopal Church in Parker County 2 Dean Dr, Aledo, TX 76008; St John Evangelist Episcopal Church, P. O. Box 80, Eagle Butte, SD, 57625; or St Christopher Episcopal, 3550 Southwest Loop 820, Ft Worth, TX 76133; or to an organization of your choice.

John was born August 31, 1920 in Hackensack, New Jersey, Bergan County, the oldest of four boys. His father worked in landscape nursery until he was laid off because of the Great Depression. With no employment the family made many moves to "crummy apartments with lots of bugs." John remembers a highlight at Christmas was getting an orange and an apple from the Poor Mistresses, the only form of welfare available then. In 1929 his father began to find work as a bartender.

As a child of the Depression, John created his own toys from materials found in the city dump: scooters from 2x4s, using lots of nails, one roller skate and an orange crate. He and his brothers entertained themselves as all children did then. They all became good at marbles and each boy had his favorite "shooter". When it snowed they played with their Flexible Flyer sleds. John remembered summers with lots of playing outside at night, with no supervision and no concerns about "evils."

John worked from the time he was 12 until he graduated from high school in 1937. He remembers that for the last year-and-a-half of high school he was so tired he managed to attend only three to four days a week. He worked part-time before and after school as well as at night at a grocery store/meat market, two gas stations (he got fired from one for forgetting to put gas cap back on); a dry-cleaning shop; an ice company delivering ice; and as an assistant manager in a movie theater. "It was amazing how many 'brothers' I got in free," John said of the movie theater job.

John was not above mischief. He "swamped (cleaned) out" a saloon before school, "where I could sneak a beer and some maraschino cherries." The job he called "the real back-breaker" was as the night counter man in a diner. He was 16 and worked 7 p. m. to 7 a. m. six days a week for $15. "I gave away some food to my buddies. The boss was usually too drunk to notice".

Another hard job was setting up pins in bowling alley at age 13 to14. "You sat on a small board between two alleys you were servicing. When a bowler knocked down pins, you jumped down, picked up the 16-pound ball, returned it and cleared any pins in gutter, stepped on a bar, which raised the steel rail, and put pins in it. You had to hustle because some guys would throw a ball before you were finished. Once in a while they would throw you a nickel - maybe get $1 a night," John said.

"Delivering ice wasn't much fun either. People would put a sign in window telling you how many pounds of ice they wanted. You would put a burlap bag on your shoulder to keep ice from slipping, hoist a 50-pound block with ice tongs, trudge up two to three flights of stairs and stand and wait while the food left on top of the sliver of remaining ice was removed. This boss was also an alcoholic; while I was shaving ice with a heavy steel three-pronged tool he was guzzling down whiskey. Later I realized how demoralizing this was for my father to have to depend on my earning money to support the family," John said.

John graduated from high school on a Friday and on Monday went to New York City. By Tuesday he had a job with the Western Electric Company as a messenger. He picked up papers and delivered these materials from one part of city to another.

"We used the subway, 5-cents each way. If one leg of a trip was only eight or ten blocks I would walk and keep the nickel. At the ripe old age of 17, I talked my way into the statistical drafting department, citing my mechanical drawing experience in high school. I had my own desk, T-square, triangles, pens, lettering guides, and electric erasers! I made $15 a weekó30-cents a day for trolley, ferry to cross Hudson River and subway. I spent twenty cents a day for lunch (sandwich, 10-cents; quart of milk, 10-cents) for a total of $2.50. Mom got $10, which left $2.50 for riotous living!" John would say with a laugh.

After about a year he had visions of himself as a guy who climbed poles installing phones.

"So I told my boss I wanted to 'work on the line.'He got me a job working the line all right, but it turned out to be the production line over in New Jersey. Western Electric Company was the production company for the entire Bell Telephone system. By time I entered the Army I was an electrical test inspector checking quality of transformers, capacitors and other stuff. I worked 12-hour night shifts because it paid more--$80-90 a month! Ironically, a lot of the components I worked on were called 'command set.' They turned out to be parts of radios I used while flying," he said.

John enlisted in Army Air Corps (Now the United States Air Force) in January 1942 and served through December 1945 during World War II. He did his Pre-Flight School at Maxwell Field, Montgomery, Alabama.

"One thing I really cherish from this training was the Cadet Code of Honor. There were only three possible answers to a question: 'Yes, Sir', 'No, Sir' and 'No excuse, Sir.' When asked a question you attest to the answer 'On my cadet honor.' There would be no follow-up, no effort to find out if you were lying. Your word was enough. I still feel strongly about this." John said.

He was a fighter pilot (P-47) stationed in Naples, Italy, and later flew transport planes (C-47) in Europe and South America, but the only plane he thought fun to fly was the PT-17 Trainer, a yellow bi-wing plane. He met his first wife, Christie Mann Keene, a registered nurse, during the war. They would be married for 57 years, until her death in February 2003.

After the war, he graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey with a bachelor's degree in education. They lived in trailer housing where Christie cared for the children during the day and worked as a nurse at night. John fed, bathed and put the kids to bed and then studied. He worked part-time as a waiter, making $50 on weekends.

Photograph by Douglas A. Kerr

In 1952 he graduated from Columbia University in New York with a master's degree in hospital administration. He worked as the administrator of a retirement-nursing home and a small hospital complex in three different cities. He graduated with master's degree from the Episcopal Theology School in Cambridge, MA, in 1956. By then he and Christie had five children, with the sixth born in September 1959.

He was ordained a deacon in June, 1958 in Dover, New Hampshire, and a priest in December, 1958 at Trinity Church, Rockland, MA. As a priest, John officiated at the marriages of all his children, baptized all his children's children, and officiated at the marriages of two grandchildren.

A lifelong advocate for the marginalized and voiceless, he walked along side Ralph Albernathy and 20 other Episcopal priests in the rain in the Selma, Alabama, Civil Rights Peace March in 1965. When asked at the time why he went, John replied, "We cared enough to go to this kind of trouble. It has been obvious for a long time that a segment of country's citizens do not have the privileges we have. This is a group that needed and asked for our help. I feel that others and myself have been remiss. We have not shown proper leadership. Now we can do no less than stand up and be counted! The public needed the clergy to witness. I felt that I needed to go to Alabama. In war there is no personal feeling of hatred between combatants. You do your job and try to stay alive. But in Selma there is an intense personal hatred that you can feel."

He served as priest in charge at several churches in Massachusetts, New York, Tennessee and Delaware. He retired in 1983 and served as interim priest in the Diocese of North Dakota, Eagle Butte at an Indian reservation; and several churches in Texas. John and Christie, moved to Fort Worth, Texas, in 1997 and became members of St. Christopher Episcopal Church where he was a supply priest for about 18 months until a permanent rector was called to the parish.

In November 2008, the former bishop and other leaders and clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth left The Episcopal Church, leaving some Episcopal congregations without priests. John came out of retirement to serve as supply priest for the Episcopal Church in Parker County, a congregation formed by Episcopalians from three Episcopal parishes whose buildings are occupied by people who have left The Episcopal Church. He was at the altar the first Sunday after the split and for the next year. Then he retired again at 89.

John was preceded in death by first wife, Christie Mann Keene; brothers Thomas and Richard Keene; parents Thomas and Hazel Keene; and step-son David H. Cline, Jr.

He is survived by his wife, Jeanneane L. Keene, and children Judith Keene of Carlsbad, CA; John Keene, Jr. of Washington DC; Patricia Keene of Crum Lynne Pennsylvania; Douglas Keene and wife Sally of Austin, TX; Laurie Behr and husband Donald of Graham, TX; and Lisa Lucas of Delaware; step-sons Marc Cline and wife Adriana of Houma, LA; and Randall Cline and wife Micki and Gary Cline and wife Jackie of Ft Worth, TX. Grandchildren Dawn Boisvert, Ben Best, Emily and Sam Keene, Conner, Robin, Olivia and Phoebe Lucas, Whittney and Zachary Behr, John and Reed Anderson; two great grandchildren, Avery and Colin Boisvert; step-grandsons Brandon Cline, Duston Cline and wife Katherine; Kodi Cline & wife Shauna; and three step-great-grandchildren; brother Larry Keene and wife Jean of Pittsboro, NC, and many nieces and nephews.

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