The Life of Brenda O’Keefe

She contributed in many ways to her adopted community, including serving on council

By Ian McKechnie

Brenda O'Keefe (1928-2020).

Pedestrians walking to the north end of St. Paul Street will encounter a curious-looking house set back among the trees, just as the road curves to become Denniston Street. From one angle, the home resembles a typical suburban bungalow; from another, it evokes the look of a small cottage. Sitting squarely on the long-gone Canadian Pacific Railway right-of-way steps away from the Lindsay boat launch, 103 St. Paul St. is certainly among the most picturesque properties in town, particularly during the autumn.

Brenda O’Keefe lived here for nearly seven decades — a period that saw her contribute in countless ways to the betterment of her adopted home community prior to her death on Nov. 15, 2020. Brenda’s civic engagement has much to teach anyone aspiring to a life of service in local politics.

Born Brenda Brett on July 5, 1928, in England, O’Keefe came to Canada in 1947 to look after the children of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Griffin, who had employed her as a nanny while still living in the United Kingdom. (This relationship itself had roots in Kawartha Lakes: Mr. Griffin’s grandmother was Mabel MacKenzie, a daughter of Kirkfield’s illustrious rail baron Sir William MacKenzie).

Not long after her arrival in the Lindsay area, O’Keefe met her husband, Leo O’Keefe, at the Big 20 Restaurant, a long-time eatery on the south side of Kent Street. They were married in 1948, and the first of their four children was born in 1949. After living in a wartime house for a few years, the family took up residence on the St. Paul Street property in 1951, a building they added to over the years. “It was the gathering point for the family,” O’Keefe’s eldest son, Michael, remembers.

By the 1960s, O’Keefe had her fingers in multiple pies. Her father, Charles Brett, who had emigrated from England and settled in Lindsay, was working with Dan McQuarrie and Dr. William Schwartz to bring the Victoria County Museum into being. At the time, most of Ontario’s burgeoning community museums were staffed entirely by volunteers who often lacked the resources necessary to run and administer them. Undeterred, O’Keefe enthusiastically dived into the role of curator and ably assisted with the myriad tasks necessary to the proper functioning of a museum. “Mum had an amazing capacity for organizing, for managing people,” observes her youngest daughter, Elizabeth Winkelaar.

When O’Keefe wasn’t busy volunteering at the museum or working as a registered nursing assistant at the Ross Memorial Hospital, she was serving on the Lindsay Public Library Board. It was through her participation on the library board that she first got involved in the political scene.

In her first time running for elected office in the 1970s she just barely got in, with nine votes separating her from fellow candidate Enzo Gentile. As O’Keefe said later in life, “He came up to me and said, ‘I’m not going to ask for a recount, because I think that you’ll do a good job,’ and I was so happy.” Though not the first woman to be elected to town council — that was Ada Greaves, in 1943 — O’Keefe stood out in a chamber that was dominated by men. She was supported and encouraged by Bud Bates, the town clerk, who provided her with whatever information she needed to help make decisions.

O’Keefe learned the ropes quickly, and within a few years topped the polls among all councillors in a municipal vote. “She never talked about being a feminist,” Elizabeth says, “but she acted like one,” paving the way for many more women to participate in the political process at the local level. O’Keefe’s father donated money towards her first campaign, and she had the support of her family on the ground: Elizabeth remembers going door-to-door to campaign for her.

Throughout the 1970s, O’Keefe served on numerous boards and committees, including the Lindsay and Ops Planning Board, the Lindsay Board of Parks Management, the Public Library Board and the Executive Committee for Community Improvements of the Downtown Business Area. After retiring from the Ross Memorial Hospital in 1981, O’Keefe volunteered in numerous capacities well into the 21st century. At 80, she served as a census commissioner and in 2016, she was serving on the Kawartha Lakes Accessibility Advisory Committee. “My parents were very optimistic, forward-thinking people, always thinking about how to make Lindsay a better place,” Elizabeth says.

“She enjoyed the people,” Michael O’Keefe says of his mother’s many decades in public life. This interest in the well-being of others extended well beyond the council chambers. O’Keefe was active in the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, a national women’s charitable organization, and was always ready to aid those in need. “A lot of people called my mother for help,” recalls Elizabeth, who notes that her mother was often the first point of contact for those leaving situations of domestic violence or poverty. O’Keefe would put them in touch with a church or other agency through which a safe space could be found.

Perhaps the house at 103 St. Paul Street serves as a metaphor of what public service means — whether in elected office or otherwise. Inviting and unpretentious, yet full of character, it exemplifies everything O’Keefe brought to her tireless work as an advocate for this community.

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