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Elgin ‘treasure’ Pat Keeney dies at age 62

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

ELGIN — Longtime Elgin businesswoman Pat Keeney’s struggles with the depressed economy, a lack of insurance and the cancer she finally succumbed to put a local face on national issues.

Keeney, 62, passed away Monday night at Provena Saint Joseph Hospital here, surrounded by friends and family members. Friend Laurie Faith Gibson-Aiello said Keeney had been back in the hospital for at least a week and a half. She and others would visit to help her pass the time, listening to music, with Janis Joplin being a favorite, or watching movies on television.

Keeney’s saga touched people in the Fox Valley and across the nation.

She ran Keeney’s Sporting Goods, at 19 Douglas Ave. in downtown Elgin. Her family has been in business in Elgin since 1883, first running a general store and later a drug store and then the sporting goods shop, which has been at its present location since 1945. The store may be best known to generations of locals as the place students would go for gym uniforms and letter jackets, which the shop still stocks.

The tale of Keeney’s battle with plasma cancer — and the community helping the businesswoman in her time of need — drew the attention of Chicago TV stations and the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and even the National Enquirer.

News of Keeney’s death spread across the social network Facebook Monday night.

“Glad I got (to) kiss my friend goodbye. Thanks for the ball busting over the years!” Anthony Pedot stated.

“I first met Patty 40 some years ago when we were both fledgling hippies. We went together to see Jimi Hendrix at a small club in Milwaukee. What a wonderful night. We lost touch for many years but reconnected lately, meeting at auctions and estate sales. Patty was always funny, vivacious and smiling. This how I will remember her forever,” wrote Ron Studt.

“Lost another dear friend to illness today, may her beautiful heart and soul find peace and comfort now, away from all the medical business,” Gibson-Aiello wrote. Keeney gave up medical insurance three years ago to have money for other expenses. While she had not been feeling well for an undetermined period, she put off seeing a doctor until October.

Fellow downtown merchant Pietro Verone, owner of Villa Verone restaurant, wrote that he will dedicate his “Person of the Week” promotion to Keeney on Thursday.

Jason Pawlowski of the Downtown Neighborhood Association wrote that “Prayers are with the Keeney family and with all of the caring people who stepped up for her during her time of need. Rest in peace, Pat. Downtown Elgin lost a true friend. Heartbroken.”

Community spirit

While she fought cancer, friends stepped in to keep Keeney’s sporting goods and antiques business open to bring in income for Keeney. That community spirit is what drew media attention to Keeney’s plight, which mirrored many issues the nation has been facing during the economic downturn.

Karin Jones, one of the people who stepped up to keep the store running, said that while she got to know Keeney because of their mutual downtown businesses, she was more than just another store owner.

“We worked together on Window Wonderland, different things, and you just start sharing your lives with people,” Jones said.

Jones recalled buying her gym clothes from Keeney’s when she was a child and sports equipment for her own children, Whether Jones needed socks or a left-handed catcher’s mitt, she knew that Keeney would have it, and would remember the family and talk with her customers.

But what Keeney, as a person, meant to Elgin and to the community can’t be summarized, Jones said. And Monday night, many of those who came to Keeney’s aid, either to help at the store or to spend time at the hospital, talked about the “miracle” that was Elgin and the way the community came together to help.

“We all agreed that the amazing people, the amazing thing that happened here was people came out of the woodwork to help Pat, and the people who came out of the woodwork to help those people,” Jones said.

As large as the city of Elgin is, it was the people who stepped up for Keeney that shows what kind of community Elgin is, Jones said. It was more than who Keeney was as a person that made people want to help, Jones added. It was the role her family played in making the city what it is today.

“I think a lot of things played into it. We … don’t know how many people knew her or knew the family. I think people stepped up to help Pat, and stepped up to help the people helping Pat … had a domino effect. The past eight or nine weeks was nothing less that a miracle,” Jones said.

Tuesday afternoon the store was open, with Jo Hunter manning the operation, as she has been doing Tuesdays ever since her friend took ill. Friends said the store will remain open on a volunteer-run basis for at least a few more weeks.

“She was a good friend who would do what she could for others, so this is the least I could do for her,” Hunter said.

Hunter noted that she knew Keeney socially and that Keeney loved Elgin and its redeveloping downtown.

The DNA set up a fund for Keeney and organized a Vintage Remix Fashion Show recently held at Villa Verone, which raised money to help pay Keeney’s mounting bills. Local social service agencies, hospital staff and other friends did what they could to see Keeney got the care she needed.

For those who worked with Keeney — because their businesses were downtown or because they saw her working with the DNA — she was a treasure in Elgin and a wellspring of information, friends said.

Kerry Kelly, wife of Elgin Councilman John Steffen, got to know Keeney because her law firm’s office was next to Keeney’s Sporting Goods. Keeney would bring her dog to work, as would Kelly, and the two would bond over the pets and talk outside of their storefronts for many years.

“She was such a character, such a treasure to Elgin. She had so much knowledge about generations of families from Elgin,” Kelly said.

In later years, Kelly saw Keeney work with the DNA. Her volunteer work included leadership roles on event committees such as the Fourth of July parade, Window Wonderland, the DNA awards gala, and the Downtown Elgin Car Show. She also served on the DNA’s board of directors.

“It was really fun for me to see her get involved with the Downtown Neighborhood Association, and she really came into her own” as a force for downtown, Kelly said. “She really seemed to enjoy downtown, and I got to know her more” through that association.

“She was really such an asset to DNA, too, and so fun to talk to,” Kelly said. “Patricia always had the scoop, more info than everybody else. She knew the background layers, and she had her opinions, and she was unafraid to share them but didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so she was careful about that, too.”

One of the most interesting things about Keeney was her love of vintage clothing and jewelry, Kelly said. Even two months ago, before Keeney became severely ill, she was still going to auction houses.

“She had an absolute eye for jewelry, and turquoise was her stone. She had the most fabulous pieces that you’d have seen on anybody. She loved it so much.”

Uncertain future

The future of the store is unknown, said Kelly, who has been working with the family. Pat’s mother, Kathryn Keeney, was hospitalized at the same time Pat was, Kelly said. Some residents have spoken about keeping the store going or someone buying it, but no decisions have been reached.

Despite tough times and her own situation, Keeney said in an interview this fall with The Courier-News that she remained optimistic about downtown Elgin and was moved by the outpouring of support.

“This won’t be the Elgin of the past. It will be something different. You can’t stand still, and I see the downtown coming back with events, shopping, places to eat and have fun and to live,” she said.

“We all have to work together,” she said. “It’s great, and I’m thankful that friends are doing this for me, but this is what we should try to do for others, too, regardless. ... People in this country have to wake up and get involved.”

Visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at O’Connor-Leetz Funeral Home, 364 Division St., Elgin. A funeral mass will be said at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 272 Division St., Elgin.

Correspondent Janelle Walker contributed to this report.

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