They came to pay tribute to Don Keough under a clear southern sky at the Cathedral of Christ the King in the Buckhead section of Atlanta on Monday night.
The great and good were there, from top Coca-Cola executives to Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson and a slew of top Atlanta city luminaries.
Mickie Keough, Don’s bride for close to 65 years, sat surrounded by family, friends and love. It was hard to see her without him, that great beating heart at last stilled at age 88 and a life that belonged to an Horatio Alger character.
Warren Buffett, the great investor and a close personal friend, was present at the funeral Mass on Tuesday. A packed Christ the King heard Patrick Keough eulogize his beloved father in tones that made clear that a great family man as well as a great business leader had passed.
The man himself was present in spirit. The wonderful life he lead was exemplified in his beautiful great-grandchildren, grandchildren and sons and daughters, many of whom stood patiently for hours on Monday as mourners paid respect.
For the Irish Don was bigger than all that in life, the man who took the image of the Irish from the shebeen pub and instead planted the Irish flag in corporate America and rewrote the story of the Irish at Notre Dame.
There was Irish America before Don Keough, and there will be after Don Keough.
Before him were mostly the leprechauns and shamrocks and trivial pursuit of a heritage most only dimly glimpsed.
In corporate America Don Keough was the pathfinder, an Irish Catholic at America’s most iconic company based in the South, where such a background wasn’t always looked favorably on.
Yet he found his way to the top and remained unabashedly a proud Irish American, creating an entire new dimension to the Irish American success story.
His great-grandfather Michael, Famine emigrant at 18 from Wexford, would surely have bowed to the coffin and said well done to his descendant, who grew up in isolated Iowa during the Depression and went on to become president of Coca-Cola, the most global company on earth.
Along the way he grabbed Irish America and pulled it along with him, showing people their proper history and their proud umbilical connection to Ireland itself.
He grabbed Ireland and the University Notre Dame by the scruff of the neck and brought them together. There is the Keough Naughton Institute at Notre Dame he started in 1994 that resulted in an explosion of Irish studies students across America’s most famed campus and inspired countless other colleges to create Irish studies programs.
There was the Notre Dame football game in Ireland which he and Irish businessman Martin Naughton engineered together, and which showed Ireland what Irish America was really about, the 25,000 Americans who provided the biggest economic boost in decades to Irish tourism.
Back in the 1970s Keough had pioneered the investment of American companies in Ireland with his beloved Coke. Over the years luminaries like Buffett and Bill Gates visited Ireland at his behest, forging new and critically important links.
There’s all that and more, yet the man we said farewell to this week was first and foremost a family man deeply embedded in the lives of his kids and grandkids. He was also a true friend, something I was very proud to call him since we first met in 1988.
He is gone now, never forgotten, and always beloved. As his favorite poet Yeats wrote, “Think where man's glory most begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends.”