Norwich recalls tireless work of 'Red' McKeon, 'mayor of Occum'

File: Robert 'Red' McKeon of  the Occum section of Norwich,  the retired fire chief of the Occum Fire Department, stands near the department's  Engine 41 as recalls his role in the Van Tassel fire in Norwich 50 years ago Thursday, March 22, 2012. McKeon died Friday, March 2, 2018, at the age of 89.
 (Tim Martin/The Day)
File: Robert "Red" McKeon of the Occum section of Norwich, the retired fire chief of the Occum Fire Department, stands near the department's Engine 41 as recalls his role in the Van Tassel fire in Norwich 50 years ago Thursday, March 22, 2012. McKeon died Friday, March 2, 2018, at the age of 89. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Norwich – When City Manager John Salomone started work here in 2016, Robert “Red” McKeon lost no time in introducing himself and lobbying for his beloved village of Occum in the rural northern corner of Norwich.

“When I first got here, he gave me a two-hour tour of Occum,” Salomone said. “We drove around for a couple hours. I don’t think there’s anybody who knew Occum better than him.”

McKeon, the retired longtime chief of the Occum Volunteer Fire Department and tireless advocate for his hometown village, died Friday at the age of 89. A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Joseph’s Church, 11 Baltic Road in Occum, followed by a luncheon at the Occum Fire Department, 44 Taftville-Occum Road-Route 97.

City and state officials who worked with McKeon and fire chief colleagues a generation younger said McKeon never slowed down in his advocacy, even after he retired as fire chief in 1995, when he turned the department over to his son and then-deputy Chief Kevin McKeon.

“He was the unofficial mayor of Occum,” said former Norwich Alderman John Paul Mereen, who represented the Occum area in the old Norwich City Council precinct system.

Mereen worked for more than a decade with McKeon to develop a village park on the site of the burned-out ruins of the former Roto Print mill in the heart of the village. As obstacles ranging from multimillion-dollar cleanup funds to ever-changing environmental cleanup requirements delayed the project, McKeon made numerous trips to Hartford to make sure no one forgot about the project, Mereen recalled.

A lifelong Democrat, McKeon worked his way to a personal meeting with then-Republican Gov. John Rowland. When M. Jodi Rell succeeded Rowland, McKeon was one of the first residents to visit her new Norwich eastern district office, headed by Catherine Marx.

When the $2.7 million park finally came to fruition and was ready to open in the summer of 2005, Mereen said it was a consensus that it be named the “R. ‘Red,’ McKeon Occum Park.” At the dedication ceremony, McKeon joked that the nearly 200 people in attendance would have to pay a toll to the village before departing.

“We’ve got to pay for this somehow,” he said.

“It was obvious,” said Fawn Walker, then project manager for the Norwich Community Development Corp. on the project. “You had to name your newest and remediated park after your mayor. He was such a gentleman to work with. He was concerned, he was gentlemanly. He was there all the time.”

McKeon’s advocacy work took him around the world. According to his obituary, he worked with the federal Centers for Disease Control on EMT training programs and with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop AIDS training guidelines.

He held numerous officer positions with the National Volunteer Fire Council, including serving as chairman from 1991 to 1995, and testified on proposed legislation both in Hartford and in Congress. He was a guest of President George H.W. Bush at the White House, had lunch with then-first lady Hillary Clinton and even had audiences with Pope Pius XII, Pope Paul VI and was among the first U.S. volunteer fire officials to visit four Russian cities and meet with Vladimir Putin.

Locally, McKeon established an ambulance at the remote Occum fire department, the only volunteer department with its own ambulance. He led the effort to establish the Norwich volunteer firefighters’ pension system and pushed for stronger EMT training criteria throughout the state.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, was working with McKeon in the past few months to ensure that the eastern Connecticut fire school, a training service for volunteer departments, received adequate funds.

“He spent a lot of time in Hartford protecting all the volunteers in the state of Connecticut, and had a very high passion for this department,” current Occum Fire Chief Robert LaChappelle said.

Several local current and former volunteer chiefs in Norwich said McKeon was quick to offer advice and assistance as they ascended to their new posts. They considered him a supporter and mentor.

“He was always good natured,” Taftville Fire Chief Tim Jencks said. “When I took over as chief 10 years ago, he called me and said: ‘I’ve been out of the game for a while, but let me know if I can help.’”

McKeon passed along information about pending grant applications to the current volunteer chiefs and offered assistance in obtaining funding, Jencks said. Yantic Fire Chief Frank Blanchard said people take it for granted when they call 911 that trained medical personnel will arrive at the door.

“It started with Red and a small group of folks who designed, tooled and finessed a program of emergency response training. You call 911 and somebody shows up. That trained ambulance crew is the result of Red McKeon and a few others who worked on the program.”

McKeon attended the New London County Fire Chiefs Association meetings until last month. In October, he pushed the City Council to dedicate a neglected former Occum playground in honor of village namesake, the Rev. Samson Occum, an 18th-century Mohegan Indian preacher and missionary.

The council approved the resolution, and City Manager Salomone hopes at some point to dedicate funds to improve the former playground, which included a baseball field, basketball court and picnic tables.

“I’m sure that was going to be next on his list,” Salomone said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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