Carson City’s most colorful of characters
Like the cannons outside of Heroes Memorial Hall and the ball atop the post office, another of Carson’s characters is fading from memory. But the mention of Kelly O’Keefe brings an instant, sort of lop-sided grin and a chuckle to the faces of old-time Carsonites.
The headline on a yellowed news clipping on the wall in the Old Globe remembers him as “The One, The Only, The Inimitable Kelly O’Keefe.”
The article goes on to dub the 93-pound, 4-foot 111Ú2-inch tall man an unofficial Mr. Carson City.
O’Keefe was “as much a fixture of Carson as is the capitol, the Globe Saloon, the cannons in front of the Heroes Memorial Hall, the ball atop the post office and the Liberty Bell in front of the State Museum,” said the article.
“He is as much a notable in Carson as is the governor, the salons, the elders of the law, and the mayor. He is, you might say, an unofficial Mr. Carson City.
“If there are members of the better element who resent this linkling of a wastrel, a moocher and a souse to their city’s fair name, so be it. There are plenty others who’ll agree with the statements.”
O’Keefe was the town drunk whom all seemed to love and care for.
Guy Farmer, a member of The Associated Press’ Capitol corps of reporters in the early 1960s, remembers him well.
“There’s lots of great rumors about Kelly,” he said. “Some said he was a jockey, a miner … what he really was was a regular at the old Old Globe when it was across from the Nugget.
“He was a great town character. One of the jobs the guys in the press corps had in the ’60s, when the press room was adjacent to the Assembly Chambers in the Capitol, was to look in and see if Kelly was asleep, passed out, on the rugs.
“He was treated as the lovable town drunk. People looked after him. He just reminds me of old times in Carson. He was a fixture.”
Carson City District Judge William Maddox remembers sharing yard chores as a kid with O’Keefe.
“He used to do work for my grandfather at Second and Harbin (streets) all the time. He’d do yard work. I’d be out there helping him when he was doing it. And basically once he got some money, he went and drank it up.”
Maddox, who moved to Carson City at age 12, and native Carsonite Don Quilici both remember a similar “rumor” about O’Keefe.
Seems at one time or another, he passed out, and someone either thought he was dead or was playing a rotten joke so took O’Keefe to the mortuary – where Comma Coffee is today – and laid him out on the slab. Rumor has it he woke up, was scared nearly to death, and the event sobered him up for two weeks.
Quilici said O’Keefe used to swamp out the Old Globe as a trade for a place to sleep.
His obituary in the Nevada Appeal, as told by his friend of 14 years Marion “Maime” Bissell, said his mother was related to U.S. Sen. Patrick McCarran, who supported the O’Keefe family, which was husbandless and fatherless when O’Keefe was a youngster.
Bissell said O’Keefe had gone East at one time to work as a jockey, was once a student at Dartmouth College. and was a prospector.
In the end, he willed Bissell his mining claim near Silver City.
O’Keefe is a shadow of a memory for me. He lived south of us in a miner’s shack in Spring Valley, south of Delamar’s Corner between Silver City and Highway 50. I was 7 when he died. My dad used to tease me that I was named after Kelly O’Keefe.
A plaque in O’Keefe’s memory was donated by the Carson City Sheriff’s Department about the time of his death. The plaque is now near the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, but will soon be moved to his gravesite in the Virginia City Cemetery.
It’s this event that helped bring up memories of O’Keefe. Feel free to e-mail or call me with more memories of him. After all, I need something to write about next week, too.
O’Keefe, who was born James Benedict O’Keefe on Nov. 22, 1898, near Virginia City, died of natural causes in Carson City on Jan. 18, 1973, at the age of 74.
Kelli Du Fresne is features editor for the Nevada Appeal. Contact her at kdufresne@nevadaappeal. com or at 881-1261. E-mail or call her with stories of O’Keefe.