|Patrick Keough was an exceptional mentor.|
My wife and I were winding down from a recent mountain bike ride when we spun past a spot in town that once housed Looking Glass Farms. For years, this was something of a magical place where our daughter Brynne delved into her unbridled infatuation with all things equestrian.
The stables and paddocks were plowed over a few years back, and replaced by a handful of large single-family homes. But the original ranch house is still standing, and the site will always remind us of Brynne, and horses, her instructor Karla Parnell, and Patrick Keough.
As we pedaled past, Lauri mentioned that it had been two years since Patrick's untimely passing. We still both think of him often, and every time I do, I pause to check my emotions. Which reminded me to post this column I wrote about him last fall. Let me know what you think.
Young people, and hockey players, need good mentors
Earlier this fall, my wife and I were settling in for a relaxed evening. I'm typically immersed in early season hockey this time of year, but noticed that Lauri was particularly quiet.
"What's up?" I asked.
"I was just thinking about Patrick," she replied. "It was a year ago that we lost him."
"Patrick" was Patrick Keough, one of the finest gentlemen I've ever met. I didn't know him well, but I knew him well enough to realize that I'm enormously indebted to him, and the life lessons he taught my daughter, Brynne. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, doing what he loved most – riding one of his horses here on Boston's North Shore.
Patrick was a legend locally, known as something of a "horse whisperer," a man completely committed to the animals he was responsible for. When Brynne, at 6 years old, indicated that she wanted to ride horses, I asked a hockey buddy who belonged to a local "hunt and polo club" for recommendations. He replied, without hesitation, "Patrick Keough is your guy."
It was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. You have to feel absolutely comfortable trusting your 6-year-old daughter to another adult, especially when that person is putting your child atop an 800-pound animal. Patrick put my mind at ease right from the get-go.
"Oh, we'll take good care of her," he told me with his trademark grin that conveyed a calm, self-assured manner. "And we'll make sure she earns her keep."
Perfect. Even before her first lesson, I told Brynne that riding horses meant more than simply "riding horses." It meant learning about these fabulous animals, and committing the time before and after lessons to care for them. Brynne embraced those duties. In turn, Patrick Keough embraced my daughter. Horses weren't a hobby for Brynne – they were a passion. And Patrick knew a kindred spirit when he met one.
Once Brynne became a teenager, Patrick gave her more tasks. If Patrick was out of town, she'd stop by the stables to feed the horses, and clean out their stalls. Her payment was the chance to ride, and that was a reward far greater than any paycheck. I felt Brynne, much like Patrick, would trade just about anything to be in the saddle.
Of course, Brynne wasn't the only youngster to benefit from Patrick's guidance. There were hundreds. Heather Player met Patrick when she was 8, when her folks brought her to Patrick's barn for a riding lesson.
"I looked around for Patrick but couldn't find him anywhere. All of a sudden from up above I heard 'You better get out of the way, kid; this will give you one hell of a headache,'" said Player. "Patrick was up in the hayloft, directly above me, getting ready to throw down a bale of hay. He climbed down the ladder and acted as though I had been there forever and knew what I was doing.
"He quickly put me to work, watering horses, mucking stalls and turning horses in and out," she said. "I thought I was just showing up to ride a pony. I loved it though. I loved it enough to sneak out of the house, take off on my bike and pedal a few miles down the road to go work for Patrick. After a few hours of searching for me, my mother would show up at the barn ready to ring my neck for disappearing on her. Patrick, with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, would look at me, shake his head, and laugh. 'Time's up,' he'd say.
"This went on for years. Twenty-seven, to be exact."
I absolutely love Player's story. Patrick Keough was a peerless instructor, with a firm-but- easygoing manner that helped his students relax. He seemed to know intrinsically what a kid wanted and, more importantly, needed. He had rules, and his kids had to follow those rules. But he was wise enough to know that kids also needed freedom to explore, to find out what they wanted to do. Not what their parents wanted, but what they wanted.
"Patrick had a way of sort of throwing you into things, that sink or swim sort of thing," said Player. "But he was always quietly there if you needed him, although he wouldn't tell you that much."
When Player moved to Virginia when she was 21, Keough, who was shipping horses up and down the East Coast, "started staying at my house, overnighting the horses he had on the van at my barn," she said. "This was one of the ways Patrick would show you that he was looking out for you."
For the past four years, Player has been the "huntsman" for the Norfolk Hunt Club in Massachusetts. "There isn't one day that goes by that I don't sit on a horse or go out with hounds that I don't hear him say, as he always did when we left the barn to exercise horses, 'Now don't get casual out there.'"
Patrick never let my daughter "get casual." Which was how I knew he was looking out for her. To him, she was much more than a young girl hopelessly in love with horses. She cared intensely about them, and Patrick cared about her. My wife, revealing her mother's instincts, saw this before I did.
"It's just so important for young women to have strong men in their lives who aren't their dad," said my wife, tears welling in her eyes. "Patrick was that for Brynne."
I suspect the same holds true for many young women, and young men, who play sports, especially these days when so many kids come from single-parent households or broken homes. Life may seem complicated for us grown-ups, but it's infinitely more complicated for our kids. My daughters – Maddi and Brynne – are lucky if only because they've had a stable home life. But they've each had teammates who weren't as fortunate. And even in a home with two loving parents, and without any lingering drama, they still needed adult role models.
Which brings me back to Patrick Keogh. This is a man who rubbed elbows with some of the wealthiest folks in the Northeast, but you'd never know it. He was utterly and completely comfortable in his own Irish skin. I'd drive up to Brynne's events in my old Subaru wagon, a bit self self-conscious parking between Range Rovers or Mercedes. Patrick couldn't care less.
As Patrick's daughter said at his funeral last fall: "He could connect with everyone, whether they were 70 or 7 years old. Because he was so raw, and genuine, it allowed those in his company to follow suit, and let down any guard that they may have carried with them. He found common ground. When defenses are down, and the act is over, that's when the real connection can begin."
Every coach should aspire to that standard. Patrick Keough always did. And we miss him, deeply.