At Monday’s annual meeting of the Beacon Hill Civic Association at the Union Club, Paula O’Keeffe was presented the 21st annual Beacon Award for her significant and sustained” contributions to the community.
A West Newton native, O’Keeffe was admittedly unfamiliar with the neighborhood when she and her husband Bill moved to a small house on Cedar Lane Way after he graduated from Boston College Law School in 1965. She soon found work as an assistant teacher at Beacon Hill Nursery School and became acquainted with many who would go on to become her lifelong friends. “It was a really terrific experience that introduced me to Beacon Hill and its people,” O’Keeffe said.
In the mid-1970s, O’Keeffe began her first stint on the Beacon Hill Civic Association board of directors and helped organize two street fairs, which closed Charles Street between Beacon and Revere streets for the whole day.
“We had food, jumpy castles, bands and wonderful tables from area flee markets I found,” she said. “We had to insure it with Lloyd’s of London because of the huge venues. It was magic.”
After a couple of years with the Civic Association, O’Keeffe left the group to focus her attention on volunteering for Hill House, which she described as something of an ad hoc organization at the time. She would go on to serve on Hill House’s board of directors, as well as its board president. Among her most notable achievements in this role were organizing two wine auctions at the Boston Athenaeum in 1978 and ’79, respectively, which she described as “Hill House’s first really foray to become known on the Hill.”
“The first one was the week before the Great Blizzard – they were very successful financially and just plain fun,” O’Keeffe said. “The BHCA allowed us to use their name in the invitation, which gave us entry. I even had a Hill House-designed label on cases of Rioja that we sold.”
1980 was a pivotal year for O’Keeffe as she began volunteering three times a week in the Massachusetts General Hospital Emergency Department.
“I was training for my EMT license and wanted to see if I could stand what I saw in the ER,” she said. “I loved it, but couldn’t get a part time job with Boston EMS…so I stayed at the ER and have loved every minute.”
Now in her 38th year with MGH, O’Keeffe assists patients in nearly every capacity of their hospital visits, signing them in upon arrival and helping shuttle them between locations, among other duties.
“No one who enters the ER wants to be there; they come with family and friends who also are nervous, and this is where I come in,” O’Keeffe said. “In small ways, I can make their experience more pleasant, which is a real privilege. I love it, and regardless of what else is going on in my life, it makes me feel great.”
In 2010, the Massachusetts General Hospital recognized O’Keeffe as a member of “the one hundred” – 100 everyday individuals and group whose effort in the fight against cancer has been inspirational. She established an endowed fund at MGH that provides financial assistance to promising junior faculty involved in basic cancer research in 1999, and her other gifts to the hospital include donations to the Kurt Isselbacher Scholars Fund and the Cancer Center Research Fund.
“I used to call myself a middle-aged medical junkie but quit that when I became elderly,” O’Keeffe joked. “It didn’t have the same ring!”
Meanwhile, O’Keeffe has also co-chaired five Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill tours – an annual event sponsored by the Beacon Hill Garden Club in which members open their private gardens to the public.
“This is really fun because it provides Beacon Hill with a day that is like a big party on our streets,” O’Keeffe said. “This kind of festivity is unusual in most places, but not here. Many people work together very hard to make it such a huge success, and the money we earn goes to environmental and educational causes.”
In the early-‘90s, O’Keeffe returned to the BHCA board and, since then, has gone on to distinguish herself as the chair of its Safety Committee and the police liaison to Area A-1, which in addition to Beacon Hill, includes Chinatown, Downtown and the North End. She also serves on the district’s Police Advisory Council, which meets monthly with members of Area A and is the largest in the city. “All the captains have been really responsive… and it’s a really collegial group,” she said.
For her sustained commitment to public safety, O’Keeffe received a Community Service Award in 1993, although she said the first plaque she received was erroneously inscribed to “Paul O’Keeffe.”
While the Beacon Award Nominating Committee reviewed many applications this year, Russell Gaudreau, chair, said O’Keeffe was the most deserving recipient for myriad reasons.
“In many ways, Paula personifies what this award is all about,” Gaudreau wrote. “She has served the Beacon Hill community in so many different ways for such a long period of time. She has had a positive impact on the lives of so many members of the community…[and] in her various leadership roles she has always been respectful of others. She is unassuming, but very effective.”
Suzanne Besser, Nominating Committee member, added, “What we love about Paula is the tireless, quiet and selfless way she generously donates her time and people skills to better all aspects of our community. She volunteers because she truly believes in and enjoys what she does.”
Another Nominating Committee member Molly Sherden wrote, “Paula is a friend to many on the Hill and a mother and grandmother to other residents here. So, she is perpetuating her love of and care for this neighborhood for generations to come.”
As for O’Keeffe, who has chaired many past BHAC annual meetings, she said she was looking forward to attending Monday’s gathering as a guest – and Beacon Award honoree – instead.
“I’m very pleased that I landed on Beacon Hill and not Wellesley,” O’Keeffe said. “Life is never boring here, and Charles Street is in better shape than ever. Most people who live here really care about the neighborhood and are willing to put effort into it. What fun it is to see volunteers with ladders winding greens and bows around gas-lights at Christmas time. How lucky am I and to have spent my life here?”