In Memoriam James O’Keefe Sr. September 11th, 1929 – January 20th, 2015
In Breakthrough, I tell the a story about how my grandfather restored an old carriage house by borrowing someone’s else’s tow truck and doing what others told him “couldn’t be done.”
I told the story of how I stood on a stepladder as he watched me scrape wallpaper off the wall with my fingernails for hours instilling a sense of drive, purpose and will.
There was more to the story. In 1996, when I was 11, the house that my father spent two years fixing up nearly burned to the ground. The papers and local contractors declared the house uninhabitable.
My dad invested blood, sweat, tears and everything else he had in that project. When I arrived at the scene with a dozen firetrucks containing the blaze, it was the first time I saw my dad tear up. It would have only made sense for dad to give up or move on.
The next week my grandfather, James O’Keefe Sr., a former lineman, moved into my father’s attic. At 4am every morning I would hear the stairs creak, and my grandfather would put on ratty old lineman clothes and go over to spend another two years with my dad undergoing the grueling process of rebuilding an entire house, with my mother, sister and me the only assistants.
Most weekends I would be forced, unwillingly, to join. Because we didn’t have any money, we had to do whatever it took.
“Time to get up, Irish” he would say, grabbing me sometimes by the shirt collar to get me out of bed.
Early one morning we drove to a large red dumpster of the same contractor who told my grandfather some of his rebuilding projects “couldn’t be done.” In the dumpster was old scrap wood the dubious contractor discarded from another house he was building.
My grandfather would have me climb into the dumpster to hand him scrap wood, and I used his knee as a stool. We cut our hands on the plywood and sides of the metal dumpster, and he, a child of the depression, would tape his hands up in electrical tape. I found the tape made a better band-aid anyways.
Slowly but surely, he used all the scrap wood to build an entire garage and partially rebuild the one that burned down.
Maybe I was too young to sense irony but the irony became the norm.
My grandfather was so good at improvising and using recycled materials, he almost never had to make a purchase. He would salvage neighbors’ shingles, find old cabinets on the side of the road, unused copper pipe from subcontractors at the Elks Club, scavenge bricks in fields and use them to make pathways. He would drive around at night finding furniture and would rebuild wood chairs using glue and screws that were never the same size or color.
He would quite literally, build things out of nothing – and make the end product more ergonomic, useful and beautifully designed than the stuff you can buy at Home Depot.
In town, when people saw an old man and his grandson in rags covered in paint, they would give us strange looks. “I should have been an architect,” he would tell me. But my grandfather was dyslexic in school – his writing looked like a 3 year old’s chicken scratch. Most of all, my grandfather was too proud to tell anybody these stories . . . something I never understood.
Ultimately, my father won an award from the Bergen County Historical Society for his efforts at preserving the old home. My grandfather didn’t want any credit. He just wanted to keep working.
During one of his scavenging trips to an old flea market, my grandfather came across an old Chinchilla shawl coat that someone had discarded. Thinking of my grandmother (and maybe not having much fashion sense), James O’Keefe Sr. brought it home. He threw it with the other items, including an old derby hat from Las Vegas a friend had given him for free.
Three years later I would use that derby hat and that chinchilla coat in the iconic ACORN videos.
From 2011-2012, I used the restored carriage house as an office for Veritas.
My grandfather passed away yesterday. I got the call while I was on the other line with a videographer who was getting probably one of biggest stories we’ve ever obtained.
My organization, Project Veritas was nothing more than my operating as a lone wolf with credit cards and thrift in my parents house five years ago. What doesn’t jail you makes you smarter, and Necessity, the mother of invention, has forced me to scale the operation into something much different now and far more lasting.
This month we are in the process of building our field operations into an elite unit of highly trained highly skilled videographers to be deployed at moments notice any place in the country. We’ve hired an Emmy award winning TV producer, field directors, the best lawyers and support staff with the financial support of thousands of people constantly and generously giving to us.
While money is necessary, the price tag for a successful investigation is also drive and courage of our reporters whose raison d’etre is to make the status quo do the impossible — with a mission to bring veritas to the vulgate, or truth to the people.
All the materials we are using to make these videos, like my grandfather’s supplies, are donated.
It is a dying art, the gift my Grandfather had of being a good steward of his resources. There were times during this process I wanted to give up or I didn’t know exactly how to make use of what I had, and I may have given up if he didn’t instill in me what he did. If he didn’t make my fingers bleed standing on that stepladder, while I hated him for making me do it.
If I didn’t see that house burn down and salvage the wood to build it back up. And the improbability of finding that chinchilla that he gave to my grandmother. It all seemed to happen for a reason.
God Bless James O’Keefe Sr. I will make sure your legacy lives on, Irish!