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Key Figures

Jeremiah J. O’Keefe was born in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in 1923, the son of a livery and funeral home owner. His family lost their home amid the Depression.  He entered the military as a teenager after the Pearl Harbor bombing and downed five Japanese planes over Okinawa, becoming an ace during his first aerial combat. He was awarded the Air Medal, the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2008, he was featured on the History Channel’s “Dogfights”. After buying his father's funeral business and merging with another local funeral, he grew his commercial interests from a single funeral home, Bradford-O’Keefe Funeral Home, into a network of funeral homes and launched Gulf National Life Insurance Company, which became the largest life and burial insurance seller in the state. He served one term in the legislature beginning in 1959, led then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy's local campaign outreach in Mississippi in 1960, and was elected to two terms as mayor of Biloxi beginning in 1973.  He was a staunch civil rights advocate, raising funds for numerous Black candidates throughout Mississippi, including U.S. Rep. Mike Espy and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson. As mayor, he engaged in a standoff with the Klu Klux Klan, the result of which was a cross-burning at his home and vandalization of his city office.  He was a donor and energetic fundraiser for social service organizations, schools, including historically black universities, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, and the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art.  In consideration of his generous gifts in honor of his late wife, Annette, and prodigious fundraising, the museum added the name O'Keefe to its title and agreed to include an exhibition space dedicated to African American art and culture. His pride and joy were his wife, Annette, his 13 children, and 40 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren. Following Annette’s death, he married Martha Peterson. His legacy continues through the O’Keefe Foundation, a principal supporter of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art..

Annette Saxon O'Keefe. Mrs. O'Keefe was born in Augusta, Ga., on Dec. 12, 1924. She moved to Ocean Springs, Miss., in 1929. She graduated as class valedictorian from Ocean Springs High School and attended Ursuline College in New Orleans. She married Jeremiah J. O'Keefe in 1944. As a younger woman, she played the organ for services at the O'Keefe funeral home. A member of the Nativity B.V.M. Church, Mrs. O'Keefe led Bible study groups and frequently served as a lector and delivered the Eucharist to the ill and elderly. As a devout Catholic, she was sustained through her personal trials by her abiding faith; and she believed deeply in grace, forgiveness and redemption. Mrs. O'Keefe was co-founder of Gulf National Life Insurance Company with her husband and worked as the payroll manager for many years. She was active in numerous volunteer and philanthropic organizations, serving as Past President of the Harrison County Mental Health Association. A strong supporter of the arts and theater, she played the character of Madam La Solda in a local production of ''All Because of Agatha,'' winning an award for best supporting actress in a comedy. An avid cook, Mrs. O'Keefe published a book of family recipes, ''Cooking on the Coast,'' in 1994, the proceeds of which are donated to the Gulf Coast chapter of the YMCA. In 1996, following the Loewenn settlement, she and her husband established The O'Keefe Foundation. Following her passing the Ohr Museum of Art was renamed the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in her honor.

Jeffrey H. O'Keefe is one of 13 children of Jeremiah and Annette O'Keefe. Following his graduation from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1981, he joined the family funeral business, Bradford-O'Keefe Funeral Homes. He rose from the position of bookeeper to company president and eventually became the majority shareholder of Bradford-O'Keefe Funeral Homes in 1989. Jeff, along with his father, grew the funeral home operations from two to seven funeral homes, two cemeteries and Mississippi’s first crematory. He was a co-plaintiff of the O'Keefe v. Loewen Group Lawsuit. Jeff was appointed twice by Mississippi governors to the State Board of Funeral Service, which licenses and regulates funeral homes across the state. He served one stint as chairman of the board.

Willie Gary was born July 12, 1947 in Eastman, Georgia and was raised in migrant farming communities in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. He is one of 11 children of Turner and Mary Gary, Gary earned a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration from Shaw University. He earned a Juris Doctorate in 1974 from North Carolina Central University. Gary was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1974 and opened a law firm. Gary’s practice grew into a national partnership known as Gary, Williams, Parenti, Watson, Gary & Gillespie, P.L.L.C., consisting of 21 attorneys, a team of paralegals and a professional staff of over 50. The firm’s office is located on the St. Lucie River in historic downtown Stuart, Florida and is also the former Pelican Hotel where Gary worked as a dishwasher during his teenage years. Gary is a member of the National Bar Association, the American Bar Association, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, American Association for Justice, Martin and St. Lucie County Bar Associations and the Million Dollar Verdict Club. In 1994, he and his wife, Gloria, formed The Gary Foundation to promote education and drug prevention among. The Gary Foundation provides scholarships, direction and other resources to youth, and he has donated to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He is also active in numerous community organizations including the NAACP, National Urban League, Civitan International, United Way of Martin County, Martin Memorial Hospital Foundation and many others.

Raymond L. “Ray” Loewen was born in Steinbach, Manitoba, Canada on June 27, 1940. His father was Abraham Loewen, a funeral home operator. Ray completed a degree in theology at Briercrest Bible College in Sasketchewan. He married Anne Heinrichs in 1962. After graduation, he began running the business for his ailing father. He stayed on for another six years, sold the business to his brother and bought another funeral operation in Fort Frances, Ont. To obtain the requisite provincial license, Loewen enrolled in embalming school at the University of Toronto. Upon returning to Fort Frances, Loewen purchased a larger funeral home in New Westminster, B.C. In 1969, Loewen and his family moved to British Columbia, where he also became involved in real estate (apartment buildings) and transportation. He represented Burnaby-Edmonds in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia from 1975 to 1979 as a Social Credit member. When his father became ill, he took over the family business and during the mid-1980s began acquiring Canadian funeral homes. In 1987, with 47 funeral homes and one cemetery, he took the company public and expanded acquisitions into the United States. From a comparatively small base, the Loewen Group expanded to nearly 900 funeral homes and 200 cemeteries in the span of a decade. Its share price increased roughly 20-fold, from $2.75 (Canadian) to as high as $55. The O’Keefe v Loewen case in 1995 was a key milestone in shining a light on the tactics the Loewen Group had been using in its US acquisitions. During 1995, the Loewen Group acquired close to $500 million of funeral homes and cemeteries. In 1998, Loewen stepped down as CEO and sold his shares in the company. The following year, the Loewen Group filed for bankruptcy protection. Three years later, it was restructured as the Alderwoods Group. In 2006, Alderwoods was sold to Service Corporation International, an American funeral home corporation.

Hal Dockins was born on the campus of what is now Alcorn State University, in Lorman, Mississippi. Lorman is an unincorporated whistle-stop town. Several historic plantations are located in the region around Lorman: Blantonia, Canemount, China Groe, Prospect Hill, and Rosswood. Dockins’ father was a registrar and financial officer at Alcorn University and his mother was a secretary there. His grandfather was an Alcorn professor and eventually become president of the university. Dockins attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, followed by graduate studies at Atlanta University and law school at Mississippi College of Law. At the latter, he was the first African-American to become a member of the Law Review. Dockins met Willie Gary in the late 1980s and followed his career. In the run-up to the Loewen trial, Dockins suggested to Jerry O’Keefe that Willie Gary would be an effective counsel on the case. He flew with O’Keefe’s attorney Michael Cavanaugh to pitch the case to Gary. Since 2002, he has been senior partner at Dockins Turnage & Banks, PLC.

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