On March 19, 1951, a young attorney and World War II veteran arrived at 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., for his first day of work at the Department of Justice.
John “Jack” C. Keeney wasn't sure what to expect, though he never imagined that he was at the beginning a term of service to the Department that would span nearly six decades. Nor could he have predicted that his retirement celebration would double as the largest-known gathering of attorneys general and deputy attorneys general in Department history.
But on a day that will long live on in Justice Department lore, that’s exactly what happened minutes ago, as hundreds of Keeney’s colleagues packed into the Great Hall to honor, celebrate and send off the longest-serving federal prosecutor in American history.
When Keeney, 88, walked on stage at 3:09 p.m., the sea of Justice Department employees past and present leapt to their feet and did not stop applauding for a full minute. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer set the tone for what he called a “remarkable” day and an historic Justice Department “homecoming.”
“It looks like we have a standing room only crowd today,” he said. “And that is exactly as it should be, as we gather to celebrate a man who has spent his entire career standing up – standing up for justice, standing up for integrity, and standing up for his country.”
In addition to Breuer, Keeney was joined on stage by Attorney General Eric Holder, Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and David Margolis, another Department legend and Keeney’s close friend. He smiled throughout the ceremony, tearing up on occasion and laughing at his own expense more than once.
“It’s been a fascinating career,” Keeney said. “I really felt privileged to work in this great Department. I really felt privileged to work with great people. All I can say to you is, ‘Thank you for everything.’”
But for the full hour, it was everyone else who seemed to be saying, “Thank you for everything” to Jack Keeney.
“As those of you who’ve worked closely with Mr. Keeney know, he is quick to share credit. And he has never sought the spotlight,” Attorney General Holder said. “Yet, he has stood out. For decades, his talents and achievements have been well known and highly regarded across the Department, and in legal circles throughout – and far beyond – the country.”
Keeney began his remarkable career in 1951 as an attorney in the Internal Security unit of the Criminal Division, prosecuting conspiracy cases under the Smith Act. In 1960, he joined the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, ultimately becoming Deputy Chief and developing a close relationship with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In 1969, he became Fraud Section Chief, where he emphasized white-collar criminal prosecutions. And in 1973, he was appointed Deputy Assistant Attorney General, a position he has held since, responsible for overseeing countless prosecutions of organized crime, racketeering and public corruption.
He has been honored with the nation’s highest meritorious service awards – and a building in Washington, D.C. is named in his honor. But the full measure of Keeney’s influence, Holder argued, cannot be so easily expressed. “No words and no award,” he said, “can do justice to the countless ways that Mr. Keeney has delivered justice.”
During the ceremony, Keeney was flourished with a commemorative plaque; a service award; a letter from President Obama, who said “a grateful nation thanks you for your service;” and a portrait that will be displayed in the Criminal Division. When it was unveiled, Keeney shook his head, visibly overwhelmed – rare for the unflappable Justice Department legend who has been authorizing wiretaps and signing indictments of America’s most notorious criminals for nearly half a century.
Mueller described the famous Keeney brand of quiet resilience, wisdom, and utter persistence using the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Men are wise in proportion not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience.” For years, Mueller said, “Mr. Keeney has shown a tremendous capacity for experience. He is a true wise man.”
Margolis added that Keeney is a true kind man, too. When Margolis suffered a massive heart attack, he said, he opened his eyes on his hospital bed to find a familiar face starring back. “When I woke up, who was standing there, but Jack Keeney!” he said. “And I knew everything would be all right.”
Following a video tracing Keeney’s roots from a coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania during the Great Depression to the halls of the nation’s Department of Justice, where he became known as the “oracle,” Acting Deputy Attorney General Grindler turned to the future, promising that public servants at the Department would “carry forward the Jack Keeney standard and the Jack Keeney story for generations to come.”
But as one employee standing in the back of the room remarked, as the audience leapt to its feet for another standing ovation at the ceremony’s end, “This is going to be a big change.” It was the thought on everyone’s mind.