Sean O’Keefe reflects on high-profile positions, recent appointment to advise next US president
Bridget Williams | Contributing Photographer
In all of Sean O’Keefe’s 60 years and numerous careers, his biggest challenge has been staying alive.
In August 2010, O’Keefe — who has held jobs as NASA administrator, secretary of the Navy and currently as a University Professor at Syracuse University — was in a plane crash in Alaska. He and his youngest son, Kevin, were two of the four survivors from the crash.
O’Keefe later amended that the bigger challenge wasn’t about his survival, but about the “absolute fear” that his son would die at the age of 19 before he could start his sophomore year at SU.
“I wasn’t sure he’d made it,” O’Keefe said. “In the first half hour, I wasn’t sure if he was alive.”
It took about 18 hours for rescuers to find the plane and pull people out of the wreckage, he said.
O’Keefe went through several months of medical treatment after the crash, and his son “miraculously came through it with just a lot of broken bones.” O’Keefe joked that because of Kevin’s broken jaw, his meal costs went down since he wasn’t able to eat steak.
I thank God I can laugh about it today, about that dimension of it.Sean O’Keefe
Of the nine passengers on the plane that day, five of them died, including O’Keefe’s close friend and mentor, Ted Stevens, who was a United States senator from Alaska at the time. Stevens was the first person O’Keefe worked for in the Senate, and the two had traveled to Alaska dozens of times together.
“I learned so much from him,” O’Keefe said. “It was quite a loss and blow to know that I lost a very valued friend that day and I was right there with him.”
O’Keefe’s next challenge will be having a spot on the National Academy of Public Administration’s (NAPA) Presidential Transition panels. As one of six panel members, O’Keefe will help advise the next U.S. president on issues involving public governance and public management.
Three Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs community members, including O’Keefe, have been chosen as members of the panel. In Maxwell, O’Keefe is a University Professor, which means he can teach and conduct research across disciplines. He is also the Howard G. and S. Louise Phanstiel Chair in Strategic Management and Leadership and Distinguished Senior Adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The advising topic, O’Keefe said, is not the most exciting, but part of his and the other five members’ job is to make the future president understand and pay attention to these issues. O’Keefe said public governance and management are the basic problems to watch out for during a transitional time because the U.S. government will be more vulnerable to possible terrorist attacks.
The six members on the panel come from very diverse backgrounds, O’Keefe said, but they all have one common denominator: they have previously served in a public capacity.
For O’Keefe, his experience in serving the public is extensive. During his career, O’Keefe has served as deputy director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, secretary of the Navy, NASA administrator, chancellor of Louisiana State University, CEO of U.S. operations for Airbus and a college professor, among other positions.
“I couldn’t keep a job,” O’Keefe said with a laugh. “I had to keep moving on before someone caught me.”
Paul Pastorek, one of O’Keefe’s closest friends since they both attended Loyola University in Louisiana for their undergraduate degrees, said O’Keefe has always been a public servant.
O’Keefe, Pastorek said, is consistently looking to build a better organization or environment where he’s worked — whether that’s in academia or government.
During O’Keefe’s time as NASA administrator, Pastorek said O’Keefe built a new vision for space exploration after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident that changed the view on how the country would go forward with human space flight. At the time, Pastorek worked with O’Keefe at NASA as his general counsel.
On Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members aboard. O’Keefe said there were no outward signs before the accident that indicated something like it would happen.
“When the appointed hour came and went, we knew something was wrong,” O’Keefe said. “We began to get the reports back from Houston — which is where the control center was — that communications had broken off a few minutes before, and the mood of elation and thrill of ecstasy of seeing all their families coming back turned to confusion and remorse.”
O’Keefe said there was a long, drawn-out effort in the first few years after the accident to find out how the accident happened, what could be done to fix it and how NASA could rededicate itself to what the crew members had given their lives for: exploration.
The most inspiring people during the whole process, he said, were the families of the crew members who died.
“In the depths of despair, they had this sense of resolve about them, and you know there was plenty of emotion and everything else, but you’d expect that — it was a jarring experience,” O’Keefe said. “… It was a very emotional experience, and it made a profound impression on me in lots of different ways. It taught me about leadership and a lot about people.”
Once O’Keefe successfully worked through those challenges at NASA, he decided to leave to become chancellor of LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
At the start of his tenure as chancellor, he laid out two objectives for the university: to get LSU back among the top-ranked schools in the country and to conduct a fundraising effort in order to raise the school’s endowment.
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Thousands upon thousands of people came to LSU — which is about 80 miles away from New Orleans — for refuge and medical treatment, O’Keefe said, because it was the only functioning public institution within about a 200-mile radius of the disaster-stricken city.
It was incredible — the diaspora from New Orleans walking into town on a hot August day. There were thousands of people, just incredible.Sean O’Keefe
LSU’s basketball arena was turned into a makeshift hospital so that about 35,000 people could be treated in the span of about six to eight weeks, he said.
But even while dealing with that natural disaster, O’Keefe managed to accomplish his objectives as chancellor.
“After we’d gotten through Katrina, I said, ‘Time to go!’” O’Keefe said with a laugh. “My three objectives — two of which I’d planned, the third one I didn’t — were successfully managed, so I bolted out of that job.”
Sue Virgil, the senior administrator for the National Security Studies program at SU and a close friend and colleague of O’Keefe, said he has been through more crises than anyone can imagine.
“I mean, no matter where Sean has gone, crisis seems to follow him,” said Virgil, who O’Keefe nicknamed — and regularly calls — “Canoe Sue.”
But Virgil added that no matter what challenges or tasks O’Keefe takes on, he always has the capacity to complete them. She added that even after O’Keefe survived the plane crash, he was still able to juggle everything, but at a different level.
After the plane crash, Virgil was waiting with O’Keefe’s daughter, Lindsey, for news as whether he was alive or not.
“When I finally got to see him, I said, ‘Oh Sean, it’s so good to see you.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m glad you can see me. You know, I’m here and it’s a good thing,’” Virgil said. “The one thing I can say about Sean is that it’s family first — family, faith and then his friends — and he takes care of all of them.”
O’Keefe and his wife, Laura, have three children: Lindsey, 29; Jonathan, 26; and Kevin, 24. Lindsey and Kevin are both graduates of SU.
Now, O’Keefe is finally living out his dream job as a University Professor at SU — a title he was appointed to in November 2014. He took the job after surviving the plane crash and coming to the realization that there wasn’t any reason why he shouldn’t be doing what he really wanted to be doing.
“I realized that every day really is a bonus,” O’Keefe said. “… Looking around at the consequences of what happened that day, there was no rhyme or reason why one person survived and another person didn’t.”
When O’Keefe was chancellor of LSU, he said the most rewarding part of the job was his opportunity to teach classes because it allowed him to reconnect with students.
At SU, he said he has never had to wonder if there was sufficient interest from students to pursue a certain topic.
“I think this is really an extraordinary experience to be able to have the good fortune and luck to be doing anything for one and also be doing something here,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Published on February 16, 2016 at 11:31 pm