Henry Keaveney: Jamaica Plain Newspaperman

Henry Keaveney wasn’t thrilled when he failed woodshop in high school, but he’s not complaining. For one thing, he flunked that class 75 years ago. For another, his life is rich and full, in a round-about way because of that class. Keaveney, now 88 years old, sits at his dining room table in JP, his long hands resting on a red placemat. Taffy, Keaveney’s calico kitten, jumps on the table and purrs insistently, looking for company. Keaveney lets her stay.

Like many people his age, Keaveney wears a hearing aide. He has to struggle to hear people speak above background noise. These days he sometimes chooses not to attend meetings in JP because it can be difficult to pick out voices.

His memory, on the other hand, is something of a wonder. Keaveney is a rich repository of old-time JP history. He knows who served penny ice cream cones in the 1920s, and how train cars loaded with milk bottles sounded as they rattled out of the H.P. Hood plant.

He remembers the stink of the pig sty at Allandale Farm, and the flying sparks at Craffey’s blacksmith shop. He can tell you about local boys who swam in a brook next to the old Continental Dye House on Brookside Avenue. They came out dripping wet, their skin dyed blue, pink or green.

Keaveney was born on Ballard Street, just a quarter of a mile from his present home on Aldworth Street. He was an only child. “I was spoiled,” he says readily. “I didn’t have to fight for anything. Every time I yelled or cried I got what I wanted.”

Keaveney’s father worked for 25 years at the Allandale Farm greenhouse, earning $1.50 a day. Every two weeks he had a day off. Keaveney’s own lifelong career began when he flunked that famous class at Mechanical Arts High School, now called Boston Tech. It led him to quit school, but it may have been a blessing in disguise. Keaveney took a job as an errand boy at a print shop on McBride Street. Six months later he began travelling from shop to shop, learning all he could. In a short time he had experience in more than 20 Boston printing shops.

He was a prize, and the Boston Globe snapped him up. Keaveney worked in their composing room for 41 years. He was a “hand man,” designing advertisements, arranging layouts and marking up sizes. For eight of those years he worked the night shift. Keaveney remembers leaving work between 2 and 4 a.m. and waiting for the “owl car” out of Scollay Square. If he missed the trolley, Keaveney says, he walked the five miles back to Jamaica Plain in the dark.

At one time the Globe needed 400 people and a huge composing room to produce a newspaper, Keaveney says. The linotype revolutionized the newspapering business. “Hot metal,” he states. “You could produce the paper twice as fast, and with fewer people.” Now computers have revolutionized newspapers a second time. “You can put twice the paper out with half the help. If I still worked at the Globe, my job would be completely different.” Keaveney did learn once to type with both hands on a keyboard, but now he is back to picking at keys with one hand again when he types letters. He has never used a computer.

Keaveney has only good things to say about the Globe-owning Taylor family and his fellow typographical union workers. He is still a staunch union man. While telling stories about his life, he refers frequently to union activities and influences. Keaveney retired 23 years ago, just three weeks before his 65th birthday. He slowed down a tad, but his mind kept humming. Among other post-Globe jobs, he worked in the Harvard University library system, where he says he “got a lot of reading done.” Keaveney became the first president of the Jamaica Plain Historical Society. He was also a founder and first president of the defunct Jamaica Plain Senior Council.

He still has a seat on the Ward 19 Democratic Committee, and is a corporator at Faulkner Hospital. He also sits on the board of Southwest Senior Services. Keaveney keeps a small datebook with an American eagle embossed on the cover in his coat pocket, so he can keep track of meetings. These days, Keaveney says books and reading are what really make him tick. His study at home is lined with European biographies, books about U.S. presidents, history anthologies and short stories. There are also books about gardening and a selection of stories by Edgar Allen Poe. “I’m reading Truman right now,” he says.

He also loves music. A few years ago he “got the bug” and bought a second-hand banjo, but he never learned to play. “Piano fingers,” he says, looking down at his hands. “That’s what a piano teacher told my mother I had when I was a boy. But I never took lessons.” Keaveney’s wife, Margaret, was a Jamaica Plain girl when he met her at the Jamaica Plain News, one of many places Keaveney worked as a young printshop employee. She died at age 93. Now, in addition to his son, David, and daughter, Maureen, Keaveney has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The biggest surprise of his life, Keaveney says, is his longevity. He stills goes to a barbershop at the Globe to have his white hair cut. Once in a while someone asks him how he stays so vital. “I tell them I had good parents,” he says. “Good friends, good advice. I also stay out of the way of cars.”

And he can still tell a good story. Ask him about Jamaica Plain in the 1920s, and the country doctor who delivered him at home, or the sleigh bells on horses at Christmastime. Ask about Al Leonard’s restaurant, where everybody went at midnight to drink coffee and eat frosted lemon pie.

By Susan Meyers

This article appeared originally in the November 6, 1992 edition of the Jamaica Plain Gazette and is used with permission.