Irish America Hall of Fame: Donald Keough

Donald Keough  and Johnny Carson
Donald Keough and Johnny Carson

By Kevin Whalen and Niall O'Dowd
December / January 2011

On November 30, Donald Keough was the first honoree to be inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame, which has just been established by Irish America magazine. The following is a glimpse of Mr. Keough’s extraordinary life story from poor but proud farm family in Iowa to an international business career as president and COO of Coca-Cola. Through all his corporate success he never lost sight of his Irish heritage.

A Life in America
The rise of the Keough family from the prairies to the pinnacle of Wall Street is the story of Irish America in microcosm. If the immigrant Michael Keough could see his great-grandson today, what would he think? He would recognize in Don Keough the classic Irish immigrant values of commitment to family and faith, community and country, hard work, determination, good humor, lack of pretentiousness, unflagging energy, an ability to adapt to fresh challenges, an attitude that people should wear out, not rust out. The poet Robert Frost said of America: “Our most precious heritage is what we haven’t in our possession – what we haven’t made, and so have still to make.”  Don Keough embodies the possibility of America, its dynamism, its optimism and its can-do spirit.
Donald Keough’s great-grandfather Michael Keough left County Wexford in the 1840s and arrived in America where he married Hanora Burke. Then only seventeen years old, Hanora gave birth to a son, John, the year they married. The courageous young newly-weds went on to have nine children between 1848 and 1875, settling on the prairies of northwest Iowa to become sodbusters, farmers and cattlemen.

No doubt it was the notion of stepping off their own acreage that brought Michael and Hanora to the plains, yet they must have felt lonely for the hills, trees and mountains they left behind in Ireland. It would be almost a century before any of their descendants made it back to the land of their birth.

The Iowa winters were harsh and Michael and his sons had to drive their horses miles to chop down wood so that the family would survive. Then there were the grasshopper plagues of 1874, 75 and 76 that swept across Iowa like a biblical swarm of locusts. But Michael Keough was tough and so were his sons. By the time he passed away on October 2, 1904, the family had solid roots in America.

John continued homesteading, growing oats and potatoes and raising cattle after his father passed away. He married Kate Foley, the daughter of a businessman, and they had four sons: Leo, Lloyd, Verne and Frank.

Later in life, John’s sons recalled that their father had worked them almost to breaking point, not out of harshness, but the need to survive. When John expired just one week after building “a fine new modern home” for his family, the responsibility for the farm fell on Leo, the eldest son. It was on this farm that Donald Keough was born in 1926, the youngest of Leo and his wife Veronica’s three sons.

Don remembers his father Leo as a man of sunny outlook, a disciplined, hardworking man who never let his family down. After a fire burned the family home to the ground and everything was lost with the exception of Hanora’s Irish wedding shawl and the family Bible, Leo moved the family to Sioux City where he found work in the stockyard.

“He had the ability to look at forty head of cattle and the intuitive knowledge to know within five pounds what each weighed,” Don recalled in an interview with Niall O’Dowd.

As a 15-year-old, Don learned the sales patter and how to negotiate and close a deal. When he got suckered in a small deal, he learned a valuable lesson:

“Watch the cattle, not the man,” his boss told him. In other words, know what you are buying and don’t be influenced by the hype of the person selling. “There is no question that everything I know about business I learned in that stockyard. I learned how to weigh someone up, to know the weakness and strength of your own position, and realize the fundamentals – that he wants to sell and you have the money to buy, and leverage that,” he told O’Dowd.
Don’s mother, a schoolteacher, was determined that her sons would have the best education possible. “My mother was tough but loving,” Don remembered. “She never spared you because she knew we were in tough circumstances and that education and self-reliance were the way out.”

Striking Out on His Own
In August of 1944, just shy of his 18th birthday, Don left for the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. His brothers had already enlisted. Emmett was serving under George Patton in Europe and Wayne was in air force. In a strange twist of fate, Don was not shipped overseas but to a Navy psychiatric hospital in Newport, Rhode Island where he would care for soldiers who were traumatized by war.

It was a lot for an 18-year-old to absorb, but Don quickly developed a rapport with the men, and found that a little kindness went a long way. “I learned to respect people’s dignity. No matter how far they had fallen these were brave men caught up in something that was far greater than themselves.”

After the war, Don moved to Omaha, Nebraska and entered Creighton University on the G. I. Bill. Among his neighbors in Omaha was Warren Buffet, who became his life-long friend. Following graduation, Don started a career as a talk-show host in Omaha, and just before he started on his chosen career, he got married.

Marilyn “Mickie” Mulhall, who had family on both sides from Iowa, took his eye. It was love at first sight. The couple married at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral in Omaha on September 10, 1949 and honeymooned in Chicago, a rushed five-day affair because Don was due back at WOR where he had landed the assignment of being the commentator on the first ever televised transmission of a live sports event west of Chicago.

It was a National Football League preseason game between the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Giants. “Luckily there were only a few hundred television sets in the area at the time,” Don recalled with a grin.

Soon he was making the acquaintance of the other television newcomer, John Carson.  The friendship blossomed when Keough, Carson and their wives found themselves living opposite each other in a local apartment building.

Carson’s show directly followed Keough’s “Coffee Break,” and he often found himself producing it. “He was just shaping his own unique humor; he found humor in everything,” Don remembered.He might well have gone to a successful television career like Carson, but he realized that he wanted to spend more time with his wife and growing family. He’d had enough of working “football weekends.”

Carson moved to Los Angeles and Keough to a company called Butternut Coffee where he was instrumental in the company’s sponsorship of Carson’s first ever television show.

Within a few years, Butternut was acquired by Duncan Foods, which in turn was taken over by Coca-Cola.  “Suddenly, we were part of a whole new ball game,” Don remembers.He found himself as number two to a legendary Coke hand, Luke Smith, who saw something in the young Midwesterner. Meanwhile, Charles Duncan, Keough’s mentor, was a major success in his assignments for Coca-Cola.

In 1971 Duncan was elected president of the company. Luke Smith, who was Keough’s immediate superior, was called back to Atlanta, and Don was elected head of Duncan Foods, which was renamed the Coca-Cola Foods Division.

Keough went on to a brilliant career. He was appointed as head of all the Americas for Coca-Cola in 1976, and in 1981 he was appointed president, chief operating officer and director.

He enjoyed running the iconic company, he told Niall O’Dowd. “I had passion for what I was doing. I always believed that you have to have people at the top who are passionate about their company, and that that is communicated down through the ranks.” He went on to say, “The task of leaders in business is to convince the people who work for you that what you are suggesting for them is in their best interest. It is like a perpetual marriage, you get along to go along, you have difficulties, spats, but you have to sit down and say we are going to work this out.”

Waking Up the Irish Echoes

It is typical of the prescience of Don Keough that after a career in corporate America, he turned to a venture of a different kind, one that would pay tribute to the land of his ancestors.

When he retired as president and COO of Coca-Cola in 1993 (he would retain a seat on the board of directors), Don turned his focus to Notre Dame and, with an endowment of $2.5 million, established the Keough Institute of Irish Studies, and the Keough Notre Dame Centre in Dublin, Ireland.

“Notre Dame didn’t have any type of academic Irish Studies program. It just seemed like a natural fit to me,” Keough said at the time.

Since then, with Don driving it on, and backed by Andy McKenna and Patrick McCartan, his friends and successors as Chair of the Trustees, Irish Studies at Notre Dame has gone from strength to strength, attracting world-class scholars such as Seamus Deane, Breandán Ó Buachalla and Declan Kiberd. Don also forged a close partnership with Martin Naughton, insisting that for an Irish-American partnership to work properly, it had to have a balanced leadership.
From the beginning, Don Keough wisely insisted that Notre Dame could only forge a strong relationship with Ireland through a genuine immersion in Irish life, and through close collaboration with Irish partners. Notre Dame operates a trilateral partnership with University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin, and almost one thousand Notre Dame students have studied there. Their positive Irish experience encourages them to become what Don Keough has always been – a lifelong advocate for Ireland. It is typical of Don’s vision that he was so quick to realize how significant the nurturing of these linkages would become.

Don has always stressed that, as we seek to enrich other people’s lives, we really enrich ourselves, and that that motivation lies at the heart of all philanthropy.

That is the true measure of a charismatic man who has greatly impacted thousands of lives, who has brought wise counsel, good humor, vigor and momentum to strengthening the relationship between Ireland and America, and who has enriched us all through his generous leadership. Don Keough has a unique ability to make people feel valued and appreciated, and to spur them on in their endeavors.

An old Irish proverb says “Beidh sé molta da mbéadh mé i mo thost” (‘He would be praised even if I were silent’).

When he was granted Irish citizenship in 2007, the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, presented Don with a vellum inscription which included a phrase from the Book of Sirach, chosen by Don’s good friend Fr. Timothy Scully CSC:

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: He who finds one finds a treasure.”

For all those who know, love, admire and are inspired by this great man, Don Keough has surely been a ‘sturdy shelter’ and when you are with him, you are indeed in the presence of an American and an Irish treasure.

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