Don Keough: For the Irish Don was bigger than all that in life and will be hugely missed by the Irish community.Irish America

Don Keough (88), who passed away on Tuesday in Atlanta from complications stemming from pneumonia, was quite simply the greatest Irish American I have ever known.

Ireland had no greater friend in America and we will never see his likes again.

Consider this: the great wave of American companies investing in Ireland started with Coca-Cola and Don Keough.

Over the years, thousands of Irish have been employed by the company and continue to be.

The scuttlebutt was that at least one of those major factories was headed elsewhere overseas when a mid-course “Keough correction” took place.

The historic 2013 Notre Dame vs. Navy football game in Dublin would never have been played only for Keough, a former chairman of the board of Notre Dame.

That game brought 25,000 Irish Americans to Ireland, and they provided the biggest boost to the tourism economy in a generation.

He single-handedly created the Keough Institute for Irish Studies at Notre Dame, and later the Keough Naughton Institute, when Irish businessman Martin Naughton came on board. His crowning achievement came with his recent $50 million grant for a new school of international studies now being built in South Bend.

The Irish institute is the largest Irish studies program in the U.S. But more importantly, it has connected Notre Dame to Ireland through its campus in Dublin – a series of connections that have benefited Ireland greatly.

Once Notre Dame and Ireland were ships in the night. Don Keough connected them.

Little wonder he was the original inductee into the Irish America Hall of Fame.

I went with him to Wexford to see the harbor at New Ross where the Famine ship bearing his great grandfather Michael left from. We toured the Hall of Fame and the replica Famine ship and he said he could feel the old ghosts and was glad a Keough had made it back home to remember them.

Hugh Brady, former President of University College Dublin (UCD) and a huge admirer, stated what it meant to have Don Keough as a friend of Ireland.

“What a privilege to have known such a wonderful human being who encapsulated all of the best qualities of Ireland and it's Diaspora - a proud citizen of two great and inextricably-linked countries; a focused, wise and generous global business leader who did so much to promote Ireland's economy: a steadfast advocate for the enabling and ennobling power of higher education who forged such strong bonds between his beloved Notre Dame and both UCD and Trinity.”

Dr. Brady is right. Global figures such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet would never have gone to Ireland but for Keough. He brought them there, showed them around and developed so many business opportunities that we will never know the true extent of his contribution.

Keough was the ultimate American success story.

He was born during the Depression in a remote corner of Iowa. Left homeless at a young age by a fire that destroyed his house, he rose from such unpromising beginnings to become the president of the best-known corporation on Earth, Coca-Cola.

Through it all he retained a sense of humility, a sense of never being impressed by power and fortune. He remained loyal to a cadre of friends who were with him throughout his life.

I was so privileged to become one of those friends after I interviewed Don in 1988 when he was president of Coca-Cola, and he revealed how interested he was in his heritage.

We flew together to be in Ireland for President Clinton’s historic visit in 1995, and to many Notre Dame games in South Bend, where his true passion revealed itself.

He and his wife, Mickie, would insist on leaving the luxury boxes and going and sitting with the ordinary Notre Dame fans. It was at South Bend, and in Ireland, where Don seemed happiest. He was like a homing pigeon returning to both those locations year after year.

In both places he was beloved and will be missed so deeply. He was a great friend, a true Irishman and an example to all.

To his beloved wife, Marilyn, of almost 65 years, and his wonderful kids, grandkids and great grandkids, you have all lost a great warrior for good in this world. May he rest in peace.

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