BY CHERYL SLAVIN
On the weekend of May 3—4 the New York tri-state Irish music community, along with family, friends and supporters, will put on the largest Irish music festival ever staged in this area to benefit fellow musician and North Rockland High School teacher Billy Keenan and his family. Three coordinated concerts in three different locations will take place over the weekend, culminating with a day long Rockland event at the German Masonic Park in Tappan.
Stony Point native and New City resident Keenan, who has not only taught high school here his entire career but has also been a longtime regular on the Irish music circuit, suffered a life-changing spinal cord injury last September while surfing in New Jersey. Although he awoke after 15 days in a coma to a harsh new reality—he couldn’t move his arms and legs—he has never lost the positive attitude that has attracted so many friends and musical fans.
“At first I couldn’t get my mind around it,” he remembers. “I kept thinking that I had to get out of the hospital, I had to get back to my students, I had gigs with my band. But during the really bad times I kept myself coming back to the positive, that I had survived with my cognitive function intact.”
With great fortitude, he began the long road to recovery. Upon arriving at Helen Hayes Hospital he required a ventilator to breathe, a feeding tube for nutrition, and a halo to immobilize his head and neck. Keenan credits the staff at Helen Hayes for helping him to achieve the “miraculous” ability to breathe on his own. It also helped that during one especially difficult patch, Keenan received a call by a very special supporter—Police Officer Steve McDonald, himself the survivor of a traumatic spinal cord injury.
“He told me,” Keenan recalls with a touch of awe, “‘Remember, there will be life again.’”
Most of all Keenan acknowledges the support of his wife Noreen, his family and friends, and his amazing colleagues and fellow musicians for his ability to keep going even when things seemed darkest. His North Rockland family has been there for him from the start: the day after the accident two teacher friends came down to New Jersey in order to drive the family car home.
His spirits have been lifted by the sight of his superintendent, Ileana Eckhart, and his principal, Mike Gill, cheering him on during therapy sessions. Noreen recalls that every day in the hospital some one else from the district would visit. Currently he is rehabbing at Achieve Rehab in Liberty, where with aggressive, innovative therapy he continues to work toward resuming his life.
“I fully intend to return to teaching,” he states firmly. And he looks forward to the day when he can return home permanently and be with his family full time.
“The most painful thing of all,” he says, “has been the lost time with my sons. I was the one who was there when they got home from school everyday, and I miss that terribly.”
The Irish musical community has turned out in great numbers to offer Keenan aid and comfort. Shortly after the accident close personal friend Patrick Dineen, bass player for the band Celtic Cross, took on the task of finishing the CD that Keenan had left incomplete. Dineen organized over 30 different musicians to volunteer their talents; he also got the recording studio and the technicians to volunteer their time. The resulting CD, which Keenan titled “Believe” in honor of the tremendous outpouring of support he’s received, now boasts a cover of “Nothing More,” characterized as the Irish “We Are the World.”
In addition, Keenan’s childhood friend, Mike Garvey, began to work with many of the musicians on the idea of putting together a concert to raise money for Keenan and his family. The family’s income has been reduced ever since Noreen took a leave from her job as a nurse so she could care for her husband. Moreover, insurance covers only part of the astronomical medical expenses, such as the $30,000 wheelchair. It is equally expensive to install the renovations the Keenans need to make the house accessible for Billy.
The concept for the concert grew into a tri-state, three location, weekend long event. There will be dozens of musicians performing, as well as live and silent auctions and raffle prizes. The first two concerts will take place simultaneously in Mineola and Yonkers on the evening of May 3. A day long family celebration at the Rockland location will take place on May 4. All proceeds will go toward the benefit of the Keenan family.
“More than anything I want that weekend to be just one huge celebration,” Keenan says. “I’ve always believed in the goodness of people, but over the last seven months, I’ve never seen anything like this outpouring of support for me and my family.”
For more information about the concerts, or to make a donation, visit keenanstrong.org.