Joe O'Keefe says his father, Jerry, was a “larger than life figure.”
Jerry enlisted as a Marine fighter pilot a few months after Pearl Harbor, and traveled across the Pacific to the Okinawa theater. During his first experience with hostile fighting, he shot down five planes in one day, becoming one of the youngest fighter aces in WWII. A week later, he shot down two more.
When the war ended, Jerry returned to Mississippi, and he and his wife grew their family to fifteen.
Jerry went on to take office in the state legislature, where — despite being a John F. Kennedy Democrat in 1960s Mississippi — he was voted the most outstanding lawmaker in his freshman class.
In 1973, he was elected mayor. During his two terms, Jerry took a stand against the Ku Klux Klan, at one time singlehandedly rescinding the group's parade permit and throwing them in jail when they still attempted to march.
The KKK called the O'Keefe home in the middle of the night to say that they were coming to kill Jerry. His response? “I will be here ready and waiting.”
To Joe, Jerry had “hero status”:
“He was a towering figure in terms of his courage, willingness to answer call of duty, the length and quality of his public service, and the example that he set and the values that he gave to us.”
When he passed away, Joe and his twelve siblings began reflecting on how to honor such a extraordinary man:
“We did our best as a family in terms of the formality and the majesty of the service. There was a flyover of planes, we had his casket on a horse-drawn carriage, we celebrated at a high mass in the cathedral, we did everything we could.”
As they made their way in the funeral procession from the church to the cemetery, the O'Keefes were moved by various organizations who came out to show their support for Jerry.
Then they saw Kaiden Wade.
Joe describes the scene:
“We came around the corner and saw Kaiden standing there all by himself. No adults around. No friends around. In the rain with his hand over his heart. Stock-still as a measure of honor and respect for our father.”
Joe tells Independent Journal Review that it was an “aha” moment for him and his family. They were of no relation to Kaiden, yet there he was standing outside in the pouring rain for over thirty minutes, just to pay his respects to their larger-than-life father.
It reminded Joe that because of his public service, his father had touched the lives of so many individuals, some of whom, like Kaiden, he had never even met.
Joe says that Kaiden's actions were symbolic to the loneliness of staying true to one's morals:
“Kaiden standing in the rain reminded us of how often dad had taken his very unpopular stances and stood alone in the rain, so to speak, for something he believed in.”
It gave his family a sense of resolve; their father had been working for the next generation, just as he had wanted.
Kaiden's presence that day was exactly what they needed as they said goodbye to their hero.
“What Kaiden did was so basic, pure, and aspirational,” Joe says. “It did a lot to help us heal.”