The Coca-Cola Co.’s statesman, Donald E. Keough, accepted from the Irish government the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad with trademark courtesy and levity at the 11th Annual St. Patrick’s Breakfast in Atlanta March 15.
Mr. Keough, 86, referenced American comedian Jack Benny’s comments upon receiving a lifetime achievement award, “I really don’t deserve an award, but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either. I’m going to take it.”
The ballroom at the Capital City Club downtown erupted into applause as Mr. Keough and Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and trade, hugged one another before he stepped out from behind the podium to rejoin his family and Irish officials seated nearby.
Aside from his business career at Coke during which he oversaw much of the expansion of the company’s operations in the republic, he has been a leader of the U.S. Irish-American community’s support of Ireland.
He personally provided the endowment for the establishment of the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies and the Keough Notre Dame Centre located in the O’Connell House, a late eighteenth century building in Dublin‘s Merrion Square, which operates a trilateral partnership with University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin.
Kevin Conboy, president of Atlanta’s Irish Chamber, which nominated Mr. Keough for the award and hosted the breakfast, declined to read his biography, opening a can of Coke instead.
In his introduction of Mr. Keough, Mr. Gilmore, the foreign affairs minister, traced the former Coke president and chief operating officer’s family roots to County Wexford, Ireland, which his great-grandfather, Michael Keough, abandoned due to the poverty and famine that ravaged the country in the 1840s.
The Keoughs settled in northwest Iowa. Mr. Keough’s father, Leo Keough, moved his family to Sioux City, Iowa, where he worked in the stockyards.
Mr. Gilmore said that the stockyards also proved to be a training ground for Donald Keough, who learned “to cut deals and size up close with whom you are dealing.”
He also read a statement from Warren Buffett, the business magnate, philanthropist and friend of Mr. Keough, who wrote, “When I’m with Don Keough, I can feel myself going on the up-escalator. He raises my sights and he makes me believe more in myself and the world around me. He never loses his combination.”
Mr. Keough is one of the first recipients of the award that was instituted by the current government of Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins. Others include Chuck Feeney, an Irish-American businessman and philanthropist, and Sister Lena Deevy, executive director of the Boston Irish International Immigrant Center.
Mr. Feeney is a billionaire who has been called the “James Bond” of philanthropy due to his travels around the globe to give away incognito a $7.5 billion fortune that he amassed from an empire of duty free shops. Sister Deevy is a relentless champion for all of Boston’s immigrants and refugees.
Once at the podium, Mr. Keough said that it was difficult to accept the award when he knew “deep down” that he didn’t deserve it, especially in view of the contributions of the others such as Mr. Feeney and Sister Deevy have made. “It’s pretty hard to accept,” he added, “but what the hell.”
Of course, the ballroom burst into laughter.
On the beginning of a roll, Mr. Keough couldn’t resist poking a little fun at Clyde Tuggle, Coke’s senior vice president and chief public affairs and communication officer.
Mr Keough said that he would keep his comments brief because he knew that Mr. Tuggle had to leave momentarily for a meeting with Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. Making it clear where his allegiances lie, especially at a St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, he looked at Mr. Tuggle and said, “Why, I didn’t even know that he was Irish.”
Mr. Gilmore credited Mr. Keough with playing an instrumental role of expanding Coke’s presence in Ireland. The company first introduced Coke into the republic in 1952 and along with its bottling partner Coca-Cola Hellenic employs 1,900 people at 10 facilities.
In response to Mr. Gilmore’s remarks, he praised the current government’s efforts to get the country back on track after experiencing a painful economic downturn.
Saying that he had worked with six or seven Irish governments, he considered the current one exceptional for dealing with the problems that the country faces “with sheer honesty,” working on a “day by day basis” to solve its problems.
“I wish to God our government in this country had the same courage,” he added to yet another round of applause.
He also thanked Michael Collins, Ireland’s current ambassador in Washington, and Paul Gleeson, the consul general based in Atlanta, for their service.
Mr. Keough was instrumental in lobbying for the opening of a consulate general in Atlanta in 2010, the first opened by Ireland in the U.S. since the 1930s.
Mr. Collins, he said, would be leaving Washington for Berlin soon and he wished him good luck working with Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. “I can say that because I’m not a diplomat,” he added.
Once Mr. Keough was seated, James Flannery, the director of the W. B. Yeats Foundation at Emory University and a professor of arts and humanities, made his way to the podium to announce the winners of the annual essay contest on “What St. Patrick’s Day Means to Me.”
As he navigated his way between the chairs and tables, he said that he had used the ancient Irish word ‘favol,’ meaning prince-like when he nominated Mr Keough for an honorary doctorate at Emory.
Mr Keough’s comments reminded him of the word once again, he said softly, “Simply, the greatest man I have ever known.”
To learn of more Irish related activities in Atlanta, click here.