William Keenan, teacher, Dorchester legislator, dies at 92

Rep. Keenan: A poll card from 1958. Courtesy Keenan familyRep. Keenan: A poll card from 1958. Courtesy Keenan familyWilliam F. (“Bill”) Keenan, Sr., a longtime teacher and political activist in Dorchester who served six terms representing Ward 17 in Dorchester in the state House of Representatives in the 1950s and early 1960s, died in Needham on Monday at age 92 and three days.

Mr. Keenan was a Dorchester native whose long career in public life included stints as Adjutant of the Chelsea Soldier’s Home, with the Massachusetts Consumers Council, and the city of Boston’s Veterans Affairs department.

Raised in Saint Gregory’s Parish in the Lower Mills section, and educated at his parish’s grammar school, Mr. Keenan and his family shared their home with a stream of relatives arriving from Ireland and a number of foster children. He attended Boston English High School where he ran track and played on the football and ice hockey teams.

While in high school he worked at Howard Johnson’s first store in Quincy. Mr. Keenan’s relationship with the Howard Johnson’s chain of stands and restaurants was of a longstanding duration; it was while he was working at a stand in Harwichport on Cape Cod that he met his future wife, and after his last electoral campaign, he worked as a nights and weekend manager at several Howard Johnson’s restaurants.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Bill enlisted in the US Marine Corps and served in the H Company, First Marines, First Marine Division Reinforced, during the month-long fighting on the South Pacific Ocean island of Guadalcanal where he received the Order of the Purple Heart for his injuries, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal. Bill never spoke of his time in the Marines, except for the good times.

After his discharge from the Marines, Mr. Keenan enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester under the GI Bill. During one of his college summers, he took on the Howard Johnson’s stand in Harwichport and one day there he ran into a Holy Cross classmate who suggested that they meet up with the classmate’s cousins, one of whom was Marilyn Kaplan, a student at Boston Bouve College at Tufts University. They were married in 1951.

After graduation from Holy Cross, Mr. Keenan began a teaching career at Abington and Randolph High Schools, but soon caught the political bug. He and Marilyn had their first child, William, Jr. in April 1952 the year that he was elected as a state representative from Ward 17, a job that paid about $2,500 a year. He continued to teach in the mornings, then hurried to Beacon Hill for his other job.

Daughter Cathy came along in 1953, daughter Pat in 1954, son Chris in 1955, David arrived in 1957, and Mark in 1959. Six children in a family was not unusual back then. Marilyn and Bill’s next door neighbors on one side had six kids, and the neighbors on the other side had four. But his family situation did require that Bill continue working two jobs, something he did for the majority of his working years.

In 1964, Mr. Keenan decided to run for a vacant Senate seat. George (Gigi) Kenneally from a neighboring ward in Dorchester had a head start in that he had already been running for the seat for several months before Bill declared. Gigi defeated Bill in the Senate race, and while Bill ran for several elected offices over the years, was never again successful in his own bids. When, later, he sought to return to his seat as a representative, his political foes entered an Eddie Keenan and a William Francis in the race and Mr. Keenan lost the race by a very slim margin.

He remained active in many political campaigns, running unsuccessfully for the Boston School Committee in 1967 and then for his old representative seat in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Gov. Edward J. King asked Bill to take on the position of Adjutant at the Chelsea Soldiers Home. Bill was dismayed at what he found in the long-term residences. He was able to secure funding to renovate a number of the buildings and bring more structure to the lives of the residents, even during a time of fiscal constraints. Bill retired from the Soldiers Home and settled in Harwichport where he accommodated his passion for swimming, taking long walks with his wife, family, and friends. 

Mr. Keenan was devastated by the loss in 1994 of his youngest son J. Mark, who had struggled his whole life from the effects of a congenital heart defect, and then by Marilyn’s death in 2007 after 56 years of marriage.

He leaves a brother, Joseph, of New Zealand, three sons, William F. Jr., MD, of Williamsport, PA; Christoper, of New Jersey, and David, of Dorchester; two daughters, Catherine Kittams, of Oregon, and Patricia M. Keenan-Luppi of Needham, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Rep. Keenan’s funeral Mass is Sat., Feb. 16, at 11:30 a.m. at St. Gregory Church, Lower Mills. Burial will be at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Harwichport on Mon, Feb. 18, at noon. The wake is at Dolan & Gleason (formerly Chapman Cole & Gleason ) 5 Canton Avenue, Milton, MA, Fri., Feb. 15, from 4-8 p.m.