My first year at Challenge Walk MS was an intimidating one. Although the event was only a few years old, it seemed like everyone else already knew what they were doing. I didn't — had I trained enough? Was I wearing the right shoes? What if I have to pee? There were plenty of people cheering me on… but only one person demanded I get out there and fight the good fight. In full Army uniform and filled with bluster, The General ordered hundreds of walkers to keep up the pace and cross the finish line in the fight against MS.
This imposing figure's encouragement wasn't just bravado. In my thank-you letter to my donors that year, I wrote of my personal encounter with The General:
Walking 50 miles is an exhausting experience not only physically, but also emotionally — but it’s also very rewarding. Around mile 27, I thought I was walking alone … until the General pulled up alongside me on his bicycle. A 70-year-old retired Army vet, the General volunteers every year to be at key points on the route, loudly and enthusiastically urging us on. As he slowed his bike to my pace, he quietly told me, "There are a lot of bystanders in life. You’re not one of them. Thank you for walking for my bride."
The General was a mainstay of Challenge Walk MS, showing up every year on foot, on bicycle, and in Humvee — but it wasn't until almost a decade later than I even knew his name. In 2012, I had the honor of interviewing John Keefe Jr. for a podcast that featured the personal stories of Challenge Walk MS's heroes. In that discussion, I found a man very different from the one on the trail: a man who spoke quietly of the demands of being a caregiver, and the battles he'd fought to become that person.
In both his private and public lives, John Keefe was a tower of resolve — someone we all counted on to motivate us across Cape Cod every year without end. And so it was such a shock to learn that John passed away last week, leaving behind his wife, four children, seven grandchildren, and hundreds of friends and fans in the MS community.
Many of those friends immediately took to Facebook, sharing their own memories of sharing the Cape Cod Rail Trail with the General:
"We are together today and are brokenhearted to learn of his passing. He has had a high impact on our walker community for a long, long time. We will all miss him deeply and plan a special tribute to him this year at Challenge Walk." –Lori Espino, President, National MS Society, Greater New England Chapter
"He helped me every time I had to use the damn wheelchair, including the first time; he let me have my meltdown, then told me to get my 'ass back on the trail and beat the shit out of the pavement'. Hoo-rah, Sarge! I love you and my heart is heavy and hurts and the tears still roll down my cheeks." –Heather Hancock
"A heartbreaking loss. John was a hero, a great human being, whose joy for life elevated everyone he met. We are all so fortunate he was part of our world. I salute him and will carry him in my heart always. September will never be the same." –Steve Sookikian, former Associate Vice President of Communications, National MS Society, Greater New England Chapter
"Tom and I are so saddened by this news. I never thought there would be Challenge Walk without the General. He was such an inspiring person to so many. He will be sorely missed." –Leslie Baldi, team co-captain, Baldi's MS Busters
"Just terrible news, but what an honor is was to have had the chance to come to know him. My entire family will miss seeing him down there, but his spirit and drive to encourage us on when things got tough will always bring a smile to our faces as we fondly remember him." –John Steinmann, team co-captain, The Sole Train
"I can't believe it. I am so devastated. He was always ready with a smile and a hug. The year I took my final steps over the finish line, he was right there cheering me on and then gave me hugs… He was like a loving 'dad' to us on the course with encouragement, caring, love, high fives and hugs. He will be truly missed, and my heart is broken for his family." –Nicole Monfredo, team member, Walk With Wheels
"Heartbreaking news. He was such a wonderful man and had a huge impact on my life. I can't imagine the walk without him. He was a special person who touched so many lives. Can't stop crying…" –Patricia Thorpe, team captain, Blister Buddies
"Wow, complete shock. What an amazing man he was. His memory will live on. I will always remember that music blaring, him screaming tunes at us, hugs every time you saw him, words of encouragement and wonderful stories. He was the type of person who truly impacted everyone he met. And as we know — HUGE mascot of our MS family. I'm heartbroken, but I feel so lucky to have been able to call him our general." –Cassandra Milone, team captain, Pino's Fighters
Thank you, General, for all that you've done for us. You touched us all, and we know you'll hear us when we "Hoorah!" on the Cape this and every September.
All photos courtesy Andrew Child.