Laguna’s First Woman Council Member Dies

Helen Keeley
Helen Keeley

Helen Keeley died peacefully at her home in Borrego Springs, Calif., on Nov. 20, 2013.  She was 102 years old.

Keeley was the first woman to be elected to the Laguna Beach City Council and also served as president of the Festival of Arts.  Memorial services will be held early next year at a date that has yet to be determined.

Helen Putnam Keeley was born at home in Morada, Calif., on April 22, 1911, the only child of Frank and Kathryn Putnam. Her family lived there for several years and eventually moved to El Monte, Calif., where she attended high school.  Following graduation, she attended Redlands University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in music in 1932.  She then attended the University of Southern California, and she received her master’s degree in education in 1934.

Helen married James H. Keeley in 1932, and they remained married until his death in 1977. The couple began married life in the midst of the Great Depression, living in a beach shanty on Balboa Island that Mr. Keeley owned with friends. Mrs. Keeley found work as a social worker with the Southern California Recovery Administration, and her experiences cemented a life-long commitment to helping people in need. Mr. Keeley, a Cal Tech graduate, worked as a roustabout in the oil fields and eventually secured a job selling oil and gas drilling equipment.

Mrs. Heeley began teaching social studies at Montebello Junior High School.  She spoke Spanish fluently from her travels in Mexico and South America, and when the school’s Spanish teacher was drafted during World War II, she began teaching Spanish. In 1954 she received a Fulbright scholarship to travel to Madrid for study. She had developed a love of art that complemented her love of music, and she was able to travel widely through Europe and visit the major European museums.  She also witnessed remnants of the terrible carnage of the war in Europe.  She and her husband started supporting the first of many UNICEF foster children on their return from Europe.

Laguna Beach

As a 10-year-old, Helen had loved Laguna Beach since she first visited. As a young woman, she visited often and spent many summers there. Finally she and her husband built a home in Bluebird Canyon and moved permanently to Laguna Beach in 1956.

Keeley was the first woman elected to the Laguna Beach City Council and served from 1962-66. She admitted that she had faced discrimination from men who didn’t think a woman could handle it. She overcame this opposition by simply doing the job very well—reading every study and every proposed ordinance and mastering the budget.  During this period she also served as mayor pro tem, another first for women.

After her tenure on the City Council, Keeley was appointed to the Orange County Grand Jury.  She served as secretary to the grand jury, with responsibility for all the documents and evidence that came before it, and with keeping the record of the deliberations.  The work was challenging but exhilarating.

Keeley loved the beach, swam daily and regularly played beach volleyball.  She found the oceans a great source of beauty and solace.  She believed strongly that the beaches should to remain available for the public’s use and enjoyment, and particularly that young people should have access to beaches. When she discovered in 1968 that there were plans to develop the Salt Creek beach and ban public access, she promptly became a leader in the Save Salt Creek Committee, which succeeded in securing Salt Creek as a protected county beach park. A plaque at the park recognizes her contribution.

Keeley participated enthusiastically in Laguna’s arts community.  She served on boards for the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society from 1970-74 as well as the Festival of Arts from 1968-82, where she also served as president from 1980-82.

She also served as a member of the Disneyland Community Service Awards Committee in 1967.  Perhaps most important to Keeley, however, were the many life-long friends that she made in Laguna Beach.

Port Townsend

By 1982, Keeley had decided that she would like a quieter environment than the now-bustling Laguna area.  She found the peace and beauty she sought in the forested coastline of Kala Point near Port Townsend, Wash.

There, Keeley also served on the boards of Centrum, which supported the arts, and the supported the Maritime Center. Its boathouse is named for her.

Borrego Springs

In 2003, Keeley relocated to Borrego Springs after a visit with her nephew, Robert Keeley and his wife Sandra. She bought a home on Broken Arrow and later moved to Whip Drive.

Interest and Travels

Keeley was a championship tennis player in her youth, and she remained a competitor into her 70s, long after her compatriots had turned to golf.  She was also dog lover and over the course of her life owned 15 Boston terriers, constant companions throughout her life. She had a great gift of friendship with humans, too; in Washington her favorite activity was walking on the beach with her friends and their dogs.

Keeley was a dedicated and enthusiastic traveler throughout her life. Her interest took her to almost every continent, including South America, Africa and Antarctica.  She drove to Mexico on the then recently opened Pan American Highway in 1936. She rafted the Colorado River at age 63 and hiked in the Himalayas at age 65. A few years later, she traveled to Eastern Europe just before the fall of the Soviet Union because she knew that great changes were developing there.  In her 90s, she took a Linblad excursion to the Galapagos and to Antarctica.  When she was 100 years old, she traveled to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to see an exhibition of a friend’s art. Keeley often took friends and relatives along, but some of her favorite trips occurred when she was traveling alone because she met such interesting people.

Keeley once said that “I am very grateful for my opportunities, and, God willing, I’ll never be to old to open doors and realized dreams.”  She succeeded wonderfully, realizing not only her own dreams, but opening the doors for others that would enable them to reach their dreams.

Surviving relatives

Keeley is survived by nephews Robert Keeley and his wife Sandra of Hillside, Colo., and Borrego Springs, Calif.; Alan W. Keeley and his wife Margo of Redwood City, Calif.; Kedrick Keeley and his wife Liz of Oakland, Calif.; niece Kathleen K. Shortridge of Indianapolis, Ind.; cousin Penny Varteresian of Port Townsend, Wash.; by many great and great grand-nephews and nieces; by many friends; and by her last beloved Boston Terrier, Charlie.


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