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Answering the call


By Yuxing Zheng, Globe Correspondent

For much of his life, Joseph O'Keefe has lived and breathed politics. At any given time, he could recite the players, and he has spent his adult life working his way through the ranks of government: as a legislative aide, a respected policy director for Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty, and spokesman for the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. Last year, he was promoted to chief of staff there.

But O'Keefe, 42, is set to say goodbye to political friends and the city where he grew up. Later this month, the West Roxbury native will move to California to begin training in the novitiate, the first step in the Jesuit formation that would allow him to become a priest.

Friday will be O'Keefe's last day of work at his current post, after which he will move into a house with other novices in Culver City, Calif.

"It's something deep inside that's pulling me to be of service to the church in a new way," O'Keefe said recently while visiting the South End's Church of the Immaculate Conception, where he regularly attends Mass.

"When I was 39, turning 40, I began to ask myself: `Where am I? Where do I want to see myself in five years? How would I be most happy?'"

O'Keefe had grown up with politics in his blood, working on political campaigns even as a child, and studying political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

"Growing up in Boston and, in particular, West Roxbury, politics is a cottage industry," he said. ``I was probably 10 years old holding a [former state representative] Charlie Doyle sign at an intersection in West Roxbury."

He also grew up in a devout Catholic household with three sisters and two brothers and was active in St. Theresa of Avila Parish in West Roxbury. He attended Catholic schools, and ultimately left UMass-Boston before graduating, to attend St. John's Seminary College in Brighton, where he graduated in 1990.

Still, he wound up in government, working for Marian Walsh, then a state representative, and Stephen Lynch, then state senator. Part of the calling of politics was the sense that he was doing good, he said, helping to save city programs for children and the elderly during a severe budget crunch and, more recently, working on ocean-management policies.

"Politics and government is really about people and helping people, and the Jesuits are about helping people and bringing God to them," he said. "At the end of the day, it's about helping people with everyday problems."

Current and former co-workers described him as an energetic man with a quick wit and as a hard-working professional.

"He was not only an easy person to be around, but he also brought to the job his keen political mind and strong work ethic," Flaherty wrote in an e-mail. "For instance, every day he would call me at 5:30 a.m. to go over the daily papers, which he already read."

When O'Keefe told his boss, Environmental Secretary Stephen Pritchard, that he was leaving, ``I said he couldn't go, of course," Pritchard said, joking. "He's been such an integral part of the operations here."

O'Keefe hasn't yet decided if he will follow what could be a 12-year path to become a Jesuit priest. He's considering fusing his political experience and religion by teaching government at a Catholic high school, though he said he is very open to whatever God calls him to do.

The recent clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church left O'Keefe feeling hurt and worried. It forced him to question the management of the church, but ultimately, not his faith.

"Instead of pondering on the negative -- I still believed in my faith -- but maybe it's a chance for me to do something about it," he said.

Longtime friend James W. Hunt, Boston's chief of environmental and energy services, described O'Keefe as a well-rounded, intelligent man.

"He's great in difficult situations and he's a problem solver," Hunt said. "He's got all the requisite attributes of becoming a priest."

Leaving a two-decade career in public service doesn't mean he'll be shutting politics out of his life, O'Keefe said.

When he found out he would be moving to California, the self-professed political junkie hopped on the Internet and researched his local political leaders, senators, and representatives. He already has plans to vote for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California's gubernatorial election, but only after first voting absentee in the Massachusetts Democratic primaries this fall.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.




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