The Friars

They almost seemed to float on air as they leisurely went around the Aquinas track and football practice field. The Columbus downtown skyline provided a serene backdrop with the setting sun. 20 to 22 friars walked with their white robes flowing gently in the mild westerly breeze on this early September evening. In groups of 2 or more, laughing and talking, they walked around the track. As an incoming freshman, I watched them in genuine awe.

These were some of the Aquinas College High School faculty members. At the time, I thought they seemed to be mystically floating, silhouetted by the Columbus skyline. Today, I realize their walk was part of their recreation, and a religious community activity promoting fellowship. 

It was early September, 1959, just before school started. Previously, I had only known priests who wore birettas and black cassocks, or a few Monsignors who wore red cassocks. To me, my new teachers looked like monks with their white tunics with hoods on their shoulders. Actually, they were mendicant friars, members of the Order of Friars Preachers commonly called Dominicans. Each wore the Dominican habit, consisting of a white tunic, scapular, capuche (hood), with a belt as a cincture that held a 15-decade Belt Rosary. Later in the year, I would see them in their full habit that added a cappa (cape) with a black hood. 

Some, I had already met, while all the others I would meet during my freshman year. My older brother, George and my cousin, PJ Connor had told me about a few of them. I thus had a very healthy respect for their power as teachers and disciplinarians. On that September evening, looking over the track, I could only see white-robed friars enjoying the evening air with their brethren. I thought to myself--what type of persons were these priests, or more properly, friars? I would find out during the next four years. One particular friar priest still stands out.

John Edward Keefer O.P.

Fr. Edward J. Keefer O.P. was stationed at Aquinas 1958 – 1965. He was born in Pleasantville, NY on May 5, 1929, the son of Ray & Isabel Kelly Keefer.

He taught me freshman English 1959 – 60, when he was just 30 years old. Distinctive with his black-framed glasses and his precise word pronunciation, his flair for the dramatic left us speechless. Superlatives hardly describe this dynamic teacher. He made each class day different. He challenged students to boldly think, and to appreciate English in all its forms from sentence structure to literature. He did not have an easy task. 

A student without his homework felt genuine terror upon entering Fr. Keefer’s classroom. Father could reduce and diminish a student’s ego faster with words than a whirlwind. He was rarely physical, yet still maintained class decorum just by his voice. He used the Latin phrase “Nota Bene” (Note well) often to emphasize a point or diagram on the blackboard. He did this with such a flourish and flair that we carefully wrote down whatever he said, or was written on the blackboard. 

He nurtured students, to find their potential academically and personally. His Summer Reading Program made war on our ignorance, and widened our views of life. During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, he sent postcards to students, encouraging them to read a variety of books. Classics Illustrated books were not on his list of suggested books, but the rest of the literary world was on it. He wanted us to explore a variety of literature that up to that time we had ignored. Some of his suggested books and authors I encountered again in my college Literature course.

Class participation included after-school productions of tape-recording plays for use in his classes. I vividly remember being the voice of Shylock in Fr. Keefer’s Merchant of Venice production that he used in class. I must have tried my Shylock dialect 15 times until it met to his satisfaction. His production of The Ransom of Red Chief was another excellent production. O. Henry (William Sidney Porter, formerly a resident of the Ohio Pen), seemed to be one of his favorite authors, along with Shakespeare and James Thurber. 

His flair for the dramatic was felt in all the school plays while I was a student. Unfortunately, there were few really talented actors in the student body, unless you included the class clowns, so the plays were not headed to Broadway. However, he encouraged each student to use his God-given talents. Failure to him seemed to be if you did not try, not that you did not measure up to Broadway standards.

In our senior year, he helped Fr. Thomas Norbert McPaul O.P. stage our senior play Arsenic and Old Lace with an ALL-male cast. Fr. Keefer helped everywhere he was needed. He helped our student makeup artist Tony Agriesti, and helped build the sets with Tom Quinn and others. He did just about anything possible to make the play a success, except interfere with Fr. McPaul’s or the student director’s directing. 

I know he encouraged me to think “big” on the play’s publicity. The wilder my publicity ideas, the more he encouraged me to get Fr. McPaul’s approbation. 

Eventually, we had 4 huge outdoor billboards, one at Naghten & High, posters in storefronts everywhere around the city, with coverage by all three daily newspapers, and nearly all the suburban newspapers. Cast members did live TV interviews on every TV station, including WOSU. We invited everyone from President Kennedy to the mayor, but somehow forgot Lyndon Baines Johnson. Their letters of regret were displayed in the school cafeteria. The only idea Fr. McPaul vetoed were two huge opening night searchlights because the cost might have exceeded our budget. However, Fr. Keefer liked the idea.

Fr. Keefer took the cover photograph, and helped design the classiest high school play program probably ever produced in Columbus. Looking it over fifty years later, it is still a work of art and refined taste that rivals professional play programs produced for Broadway shows. A simple playbill was also printed.

Fr. Keefer and Fr. McPaul treated the play as a Broadway production, right down to the black tuxedos worn by the class members seating the audience. Their combined efforts succeeded. The play was a total sell-out for the two performances at the Whetstone High auditorium. More importantly, each of the 98 members of the Class of 1963 actually participated in the production and the success of the play. It was a total class effort. The three students who played the females so well in the play have been reminded of it at every reunion for years, much to their spouses’ chagrin. The success of the play reminded my dad (Class of ‘29) of the plays and minstrel shows Aquinas put on in the late 20’s and early 30’s.

The play was financially very profitable. We rented a swimming pool, and then an entire 50-lane bowling alley for class parties with free food for all the class members and their dates. As I recall, the remaining $300, about $2400 in 2016 dollars, was given as a class gift to Aquinas. 

Directly after the opening night performance, I still remember my date and I stopping to mail Thank You notes to all the media and other persons who helped publicize the play. Years later, when I encountered some of those media folks, they remembered the Thank You notes. They really appreciated being thanked, especially by high-schoolers. Thank You, Fr. Keefer for that idea. 

Fr. Keefer attended all the Aquinas sports events, but I do not think he was really an avid sports fan, just a great supporter of Aquinas students. By the time we were seniors, among ourselves, we affectionately referred to him as “Eddie J” because he was a friend, as well as a teacher. His encouragement was boundless.

After Aquinas, Fr. Keefer went on to serve the Dominicans in St. Joseph Province and then, in 1979, in the new southern St. Martin de Porres Province. 

Countless lives were touched by his rich and varied ministries: these began in Ohio at St. Gertrude's in Madeira and Aquinas College High School, Columbus ('56-'65). He served hospital chaplaincies in N.Y. City, Little Rock, AR, Columbia, SC; additional parish ministries included service at Sacred Heart, Rosedale, MS, St. Thomas More, Englewood, CO & Good Shepherd, Denver, CO; his work as an "itinerant preacher" extended from 1978-1985 (out of Wheeling, WV and Little Rock, AR). He was a college/university chaplain, including a significant stint at Siena Heights, Adrian, MI ('69-'78) and Trinity University, San Antonio, TX (2000-2008). In his last years, in San Antonio, despite failing health, he generously served as a supply chaplain for various religious (including the Congreg. of Divine Providence, Sisters of the Incarnate Word, Sisters of the Holy Spirit, Salesian Sisters.), and often helped at Holy Redeemer Parish and at St. Ann Church in San Antonio.

John E. Keefer, O.P., Dominican friar of San Juan Macias Priory (at St. Ann Church) went peacefully to his Lord Wednesday, December 17, 2008 at Los Alamos, NM in the 79th year of his life and the 52nd year of his priesthood. Inurnment was at the Dominican Friars' Plot, 39003 Rosaryville Road, Rosaryville, Tangipahoa Parish Louisiana 70454 (Ponchatoula), LA. 

May you rest in peace, Fr. Keefer

PS. My cousin PJ Connor (Class of 1960), sent me the following 
When Fr Keefer came to Aquinas in the second semester of my soph year, he was filling in for the deceased Fr. Skippy. His opening line was “You killed one priest, but you won’t kill me!”

Aquinas College High School 
Class of 1963
25 August 2016
P S Started this story on Fr. Keefer in 2003. Finished 22 August 2016, after I found his obit online.TAB