Frank O’Keefe was a giant in the history of Gunnedah. He was a state and federal parliamentarian for more than 20 years, the longest-serving mayor and alderman in Gunnedah’s municipal history and a prominent businessman and sportsman.
Gunnedah was Frank O’Keefe’s town. Justifiably, he could have worn the mantle of Gunnedah’s most influential citizen of the 20th century. He was a high-profile figure for more than 50 years until his death in April 1989, aged 76.
Frank O’Keefe served eight years in state parliament, 15 years in the federal parliament, 44 years in local government, 18 years as mayor and seven years as deputy mayor. His mayoral span covered a momentous time in Gunnedah’s history. In the 1950s, at the peak of the O’Keefe era, Gunnedah threw off the mantle of “just another country town” and became a vigorous, fast-growing centre with modern facilities and good employment prospects for its young people. During that era, the Gunnedah Abattoir was established and the town’s airport and memorial baths were built. Frank O’Keefe was a key player in the selection of Gunnedah as one of four strategic sites for local government-based abattoirs. He was chairman of the joint aerodrome committee, which co-ordinated a community effort to build the aerodrome, and he was the first secretary of the Gunnedah War Memorial Baths Committee, co-ordinating one of the town’s most outstanding community projects. The Olympic-sized pool was opened in 1955.
Frank O’Keefe came to Gunnedah as a young man from the city in 1934. He was a Shell Oil company representative and, through his sporting prowess, quickly slotted into the life of the town. In 1940 he resigned from Shell and opened up a fuel and machinery depot. One of his regrets was his rejection for army service in World War II, because of a left arm and wrist badly smashed in a childhood fall but he became secretary of the Gunnedah War Loans Committee, winning a citation from Prime Minister Chifley for raising substantial funds through the war years. His public life began in 1944 when he was elected to Gunnedah Municipal Council, topping the poll. One of his great achievements was to take control of flood relief in 1955 when water entered 365 homes. For 30 years he remained civil defence local controller.
As a young man, Frank O’Keefe had been interested in politics. He tried three times to win the state seat of Liverpool Plains, finally winning the seat in 1961 by just 50 votes. He never lost another election, state or federal, for the next 23 years. After years in State Parliament, he won the federal seat of Paterson in 1969 with a narrow majority. After that, he increased his majority at every election. At his last in 1983, he had an absolute majority of more than 12,000 votes.
As a parliamentarian, Frank O’Keefe led many overseas trade and fact-finding missions to Europe, Asia and South Africa and was chairman for many years of the Government Trade and Resources Committee.
Back home, he was a Rotarian for more than 40 years, chairman of Namoi Valley County Council, a prime mover for a separate high school and one of the founders of the North West Tourist Association. There was hardly a group in town that didn’t benefit from his strength and ability to “get things done”. The tree-lined O’Keefe Avenue on the northern side of Cohen’s Bridge was named in his honour along with the Frank O’Keefe Pavilion at Wolseley Park.
Apart from everything else, Frank O’Keefe was a fine sportsman. As a youngster he won a NSW 220-yard swimming championship, played first grade water polo and was a top-line surfer.
Cricket, however, was his first love. He played for more than 30 seasons and in the 1940s and 1950s was a key figure in Gunnedah teams which were the best in the north. He was also one of the best tennis players in the North West. His interest extended to administration and he was president of the Gunnedah District Cricket Association for 28 years and president of Gunnedah Rugby League and Group 4 for many years.
Frank’s wife Nan was a loyal supporter of her husband in his public and parliamentary life and, in her own right, was an active contributor to the life of Gunnedah. She lived in Gunnedah for more than 60 years and was prominent in the community as the wife of the mayor for a total of 18 years, then through her husband’s service as state member and federal parliamentarian.
Born Nance Doreen Pascoe at Muswellbrook on August 21, 1909, she attended school in Manilla and worked in Sydney before coming to Gunnedah in 1941. She married Frank O’Keefe in 1944, the same year that he was first elected to Gunnedah Municipal Council. She was always a staunch supporter of her husband and often deputised for him when he was in parliament, as well as being a gracious hostess at council functions. Her death occurred at Lundie House on October 4, 2004, aged 95.
The breadth and scope of Frank O’Keefe’s activities almost defied belief but he wasn’t a figurehead – he was a “doer” who had enormous drive. Frank O’Keefe retired from public life in 1987, stepping down from council, and his health declined until his death on April 21, 1989.
Frank O’Keefe was the most influential figure in Gunnedah’s 20th century history and many of his good works went unnoticed as locals went to him for help or advice. He died in 1989, aged 76.To order photos from this page click here