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Keeney remembered as tireless advocate for fellow vets

During a January 2012 interview, Durbin Keeney reflects on how fortunate he is to have accomplished one of his goals in life - to get help, recognition and assistance for veterans. (News Tribune file photo)1 / 4
Durbin Keeney, of the Northland Vietnam Veterans Association, salutes the flag at a POW ceremony on the Lakewalk in Duluth in September 2004. (Clint Austin / 2 / 4
Durbin Keeney (left), regional director of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, visits with John Banner in his room at Duluth Veterans Place in March 2011. (Steve Kuchera / / 4
Durbin Keeney, seen here in June 2000, was a longtime volunteer for Grandma’s Marathon, overseeing the distribution of runners’ sweat bags and receiving Volunteer of the Year honors in 1999. (News Tribune file photo)4 / 4

Durbin Keeney, who spent years as a tireless advocate for veterans in the Northland — finding them homes, connecting them with services and ensuring their service was recognized — died early Sunday morning at age 65.

Keeney, who died from cardiac-related health complications, was a Vietnam War veteran and served as regional director of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans for more than a decade before relinquishing that post in September 2011.

“With the passing of Durbin Keeney, our community has lost a friend, a tireless advocate, and a true patriot. I always enjoyed working with Durb and appreciated his passion,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness said in a statement Sunday afternoon.

“I once referred to him as relentless, which he loved. He took it as a compliment, often referring to himself as ‘Relentless Keeney’ to me from then on. He was passionately devoted to helping others, especially his fellow veterans. He, and his vast contributions to our community, will always be remembered.”

Keeney is survived by his wife, Diane; three children, Betty, Deanna and Durbin III; and two grandchildren. Service details had not been finalized on Sunday but will be announced later this week.

Keeney was born and raised in Cleveland; his connection to Duluth started when he was stationed in the city during his military service.

As a member the U.S. Air Force, Keeney was stationed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, from May 1970 to May 1971, where he served with the 3rd Security Police. In a 2012 interview with the News Tribune, Keeney recalled his painful return from an unpopular war.

“My coming home was awful,” he said. “Within the first hour, I had eggs thrown at me in a van coming out of Newark. I had a guy in the van accuse me of being a baby killer.”

John Marshall, commander of the Duluth Honor Guard, considered Keeney a close, personal friend and said both the war and the homecoming left a clear mark on his colleague.

“I think his personal experience motivated him to try to make sure nothing like that ever happened again,” he said. “We lost good men, and it still drives us to remember the many people who gave up all their tomorrows for our today.”

Dan Hartman, former program manager of the Veterans’ Memorial Hall in Duluth, said he will remember Keeney as a tireless champion for veterans, whether it meant helping them solve problems one-on-one, fighting for programs to offer broader assistance, meeting their housing needs or simply working to recognize their service.

Hartman pointed to Keeney’s wide-ranging involvement in efforts to help the community. Before taking a job with the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans in 1998, Keeney served as director of Union Gospel Mission. He also was a longtime volunteer for Grandma’s Marathon, overseeing the distribution of runners’ sweat bags and receiving Volunteer of the Year honors in 1999.

Deanna Lean, who now lives in Plano, Texas, described her father as a dedicated family man who still always thought of others.

“If he could reach out to someone in need and make an impact, that’s what made him tick,” she said.

In his outreach work, Keeney often encountered homeless veterans and became acutely aware of their needs.

“He decided to help veterans and set out to build places for them to stay. Durbin made that his life’s mission, and he worked as hard as he could to make his vision come true,” Hartman said.

Keeney’s efforts proved instrumental in the success of local housing projects, including the opening of Duluth Veterans Place, a development to serve the transitional and long-term needs of formerly homeless veterans.

Lean recalled her father’s single-minded sense of purpose.

“He was very determined and persistent,” she said. “At times, he would not accept ‘no’ as an answer. That probably got some people upset at him, but he did what he did for the right reasons.”

Marshall concurred. “You either loved him or hated him,” he said.

Marshall places himself squarely in the former camp, based largely on the results of Keeney’s actions.

“He was a great lobbyist and raised millions of dollars for veterans,” Marshall said.