During the 1920s, the decade during which Virginia H. Keane entered the world, America’s top news stories would include the beginning of prohibition, the first successful, nonstop flight from New York to Paris by Charles Lindbergh, the ratification of the 19th Amendment which finally gave women the right to vote, the invention of the television and the worst race riot in U.S. history in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But for Keane, born Virginia Ada Hawkins on March 24, 1920, in Cincinnati, faith in God, service to the community, a ferocious dedication to family, increasing opportunities for women in higher education and a love for jazz and classical music remained foundational to her daily life – both then and now.
On Saturday, March 27, her only daughter, Karen Keane McCrory, along with dozens of friends, former co-workers, extended family members and even Ward 4 City Council member Janeese Lewis George, congratulated Keane on her 101st birthday during a “drive-by, honk and wave” celebration.
The onset of COVID-19 prohibited McCrory, who lives with her mother in Northwest, from marking her mother’s achievement as a centenarian last year. But this year, pandemic or not, she remained determined to acknowledge Keane’s achievements and longevity in grand fashion.
“The best way to describe my mother is she’s a gentle giant,” McCrory said. “She’s a woman with the velvet touch who gets her point across without yelling and screaming and who’s always found a way to get whatever she desires done gracefully.”
Keane’s mother, Amy Louise Hawkins, highly active in civic organizations, worked as a homemaker. Her father, Ralph R. Hawkins, wore many hats to provide for his family: an attaché in the U. S. Circuit Court under several federal judges, a jockey and a leader in a cousin’s thriving catering business. Keane’s maternal grandfather, the Honorable George W. Hays, a former slave, became the first Black court crier in Cincinnati and later served three terms in the Ohio Assembly.
In an example of how history often repeats itself, while Keane’s parents had four children, two of them died during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Keane prepared herself for a 35-year career as a psychiatric social worker, earning a bachelor of science at Wilberforce University and a master’s degree in 1951 at Howard University. She also joined Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. during the 1940s. She retired as the Director of Social Services at Howard University Hospital in 1986.
“Many of her former staff members and co-workers showed up on Saturday to wish my mother a happy birthday,” McCrory said. “They still contact her, send her cards and call her – even 35 years after her retirement. Who does that for a former boss? She mentored her workers and encouraged them to further their education.”
“Religion has always been important in our family and my mother’s favorite song has long been ‘If I Can Help Somebody.’ The lyrics to the song exemplify who she is and how she was raised.”
“Because she’s confined to a wheelchair now and has significant memory loss, some days are more difficult than others. But I receive a lot of support from others who are facing similar challenges with their parents as well as assistance from health care professionals – members of our extended family from Howard University Hospital – who work with patients dealing with dementia.”
“She’s been a loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. And as a professional woman who divorced her husband when I was only three, she never complained about the difficulties that came with raising me alone. In those days, most women weren’t doing that. But she didn’t do it alone – not really. It takes a village.”
“And during her birthday celebration on Saturday, the village showed up. In fact, they show up for me and for my mother almost every day. And I am thankful for that village,” McCrory added.