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At 96 years old, Jack Keenan may not remember what he had for dinner. But he can recall, with vivid detail, the day he received leather gloves in France from his young bride as he was fighting off the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge in 1945.

He also may not remember if he took his nighttime pills, but the stories he can tell of the martini lunches and office antics during his 40 years as an advertising executive for J.Walter Thompson are better than any "Mad Men" episode.

And while he may have to be reminded not to stand up too quickly lest he get dizzy, his stories about growing up on Manistique on the east side of Detroit as the scrawny but most likely darling middle child of three boys born to Julia and Walter Keenan are legendary.

One in particular, about his mother, Julia, resurfaced this past weekend as the entire Keenan clan — three generations strong — gathered together for a family reunion on Belle Isle this past weekend.

As the story goes, Julia and her boys were having a picnic on Belle Isle. After lunch was over, Julia saw an approaching freighter come down the Detroit River and decided to welcome the ship into friendly waters. In an instant, she snatched the table cloth off the picnic table and proceeded to wave it high in the air in hopes someone aboard the oncoming ship might take notice.

Lo and behold, the ship delivered a loud honk of the horn. Julia was thrilled beyond measure and the tale was set in stone.

Some years later, Jack was working on the Great Lakes as a coal passer for the Merchant Marines when he learned that the horn sounding was required of vessels approaching one another and that his Mother must have never seen a second vessel. Of course, he never told his mother for fear of robbing her of her claim to fame.

That the recent reunion took place on Father's Day weekend was not a coincidence. Three and a half years shy of the century mark, Jack is incredibly active. He reads the New York Times daily, works on his watercolors in his studio, walks laps in the nearby pool and can be a loose cannon on Facebook. But this past winter, Jack got sick and as with all nonagenarians, the road back to recovery was long, slow and unpredictable. (Ellen Keenan passed away in 2008 at the age of 88).

In response, an email went out suggesting a "Father's Day" gathering. Out of 46 descendants 43 showed, which tells you something about the draw of this beloved patriarch. Jack and Ellen's nine children with spouses came, along with 19 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, hailing from San Francisco, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Portland and Minneapolis.

The siblings presented Jack with a self-published book of photos and favorite sayings titled: "A Book of Jackisms: Right from the Horse's Mouth."

A sampling: "Give me a touch of the grape. Just a touch. Awe, you can give me more than that!" "You little snot." "Pass the salt you little bastard." "You're a peach." "What are you on? The needle or the powder?""She must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. (About someone who talks too much.) And "I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight." (In reference to his abundance of blessings.)

So overwhelmed by the book, he launched one superlative after another: "This is Marvelous! Wonderful! Terrific!" (All Jackisms, for sure.) When came upon a picture of Ellen, he suddenly burst into tears, surprising even himself. "I'm the luckiest man in the world," he cried.

Just when it was thought that moment could not be topped, someone spotted an enormous ship slowly moving down the Detroit River. It was the mighty H. Lee White bulk freighter, 700 feet long and carrying some 35 tons of cargo and too, a hunch that could make an old man's memories come full circle.

Jack sat in a picnic chair, shaking his head at the foolhardy notion that his mother had once singlehandedly charmed a ship captain to salute her on shore. Undeterred, a dozen of us grabbed napkins, garbage bags and raincoats and jumped on top of picnic tables, waving madly at the passing ship.

In seconds, the full throttle blast of the horn sent us into orbit. Jack almost fell out of his chair. "I can't believe it!" he screamed. "It was the only ship in the river! I'm sure of it!" He was still reliving that horn salute into the night: "I'm telling you, that was one of the greatest moments of my life!"

So here's to Julia who surely had a hand in debunking a longtime family lore. And a heartfelt thank you goes out to the captain of that ship from the captain of ours.

Now Jack's got another story to add to his repertoire.

mkeenan@detroitnews.com

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