The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Keith Oakley
Keith Oakley has lived his almost 70 years in Clifton and has touched so many lives. Born in the Dutch Hill section to parents Lewis and Mary (CHS class of ’39), Keith and his siblings (Barbara Evans, Cindy Weber, and Wayne) went through the Clifton school system, attending School 15, Christopher Columbus Junior High, and CHS. The Oakley children were always encouraged by their parents to give back to their community. Lewis served in the Army for over 30 years and Mary was a secretary at the then-Boys Club; Lewis also served as its Men’s Club president.
Keith started attending the Club at age six and found his home away from home. Keith was not very academically minded and didn’t care for sports but found he was accepted and made life-long friends at the Boys Club. He eventually became president of the Leaders Club (now Keystone Club) and soon was on staff as a swim instructor and counselor. Now the Boys and Girls Club of Clifton, Keith has been involved in all aspects of club life. “I never left!” he said, having served as a Board Trustee for 40 years in a variety of roles. Currently, he is the Club historian and is proud of how the Club has evolved through the decades.
Keith admitted to not being interested in school and at Clifton High School (class of 1971) his teachers decided to “punish” him by sending him to a work-study program at School 13, working with special needs children. That was another turning point in Keith’s life. Far from being punishment, that assignment put Keith on a path that he has followed ever since. “These kids need a lot of love and care, and I fell in love with the smiles I got back from them.” For the past two decades, Keith has been a trustee with the North Jersey Elks Developmental Disabilities Agency, whose mission is “to advance the independence and to enrich the quality of life of individuals with disabilities by providing opportunities to challenge themselves to learn and grow emotionally and functionally in educational, therapeutic and vocational environments within an atmosphere of acceptance.”
The Vietnam War was raging when Keith graduated from high school but a number of factors, including some health issues and a very high draft lottery number, kept him out of the military. Despite the tumultuous times, Keith supported the troops and to this day is very involved with veterans’ issues. He is a 30-year member of the Clifton Veterans Committee, which not only assists local veterans but also raises awareness, fundraises, and coordinates parades and services. Just after 9/11, Keith and veterans Walter Pruiksma (Army) and John Biegel Sr. (Marines) came up with the idea of creating an Avenue of Flags in Clifton’s Municipal Complex. Each flag represents a veteran whose loved ones pay a fee for a flag and a small identifying tag. The Field of Honor, home to 283 flags, is for those who were killed in action. Volunteers put up flags at dawn and take them down before sunset, observing all the solemn protocols. They go up five times a year, weather permitting (Memorial Day, Flag Day, July 4th, Patriot Day, and Veterans’ Day). Growing from just a few, there are now over 2,247 flags. Anyone can purchase a flag as long as the person honored has Clifton ties.
Keith was honored with a gift of his own flag as thanks for his years of service which he says he would have voted down had it been up to him, since he never served. His flag flies right next to his father’s POW-MIA flag in front of the barn with all the service flags.
Keith also helps to coordinate logistics and fundraising for Clifton’s annual Veterans’ parades, one in May for Memorial Day and one in November, for Veterans’ Day. He is also a member of the Sons of the American Legion, where he serves as commander for both Squadron 8 and the County. In a recent interview, Keith mentioned that all those killed in action from Clifton will soon have the streets they lived on named in their honor. Signs posted above the street names will include their name, war fought, and service branch.
Keith has long been a supporter of the most vulnerable in our population, children in the court system. He served on the Passaic County Juvenile Conference Committee as the Chairman for both County and State, involving child placement together with a team of child psychologists and social workers.
If you’ve been to an event at the Clifton Elks Lodge 1569 Keith has probably welcomed you, offered to pour you a drink, or chatted with you about mutual acquaintances. He’s been a loyal Elk for over 30 years, serving in various leadership roles. The Elks is a not-for-profit organization raising funds to provide charitable services to support Special Children, Veterans, Drug Awareness, and Youth Activities. Keith also volunteers his time for many other Clifton organizations, fulfilling his family’s mission of always giving back, and remembering where he came from.
Among the numerous honors he’s received, Keith is very proud of being a recipient of the Giblin Association Community Service Award-Veteran Advocate in 2022.
Keith raised his four children – Kara 46, Maryfrances 37, Mathew 35, and Emilie 29, who all went through the Clifton school system - as a single dad while working full time. He said he was even busier after retiring due to all his volunteer duties. He added that his children were always looking out for him and his happiness. They placed his profile on a dating site and found a match for him, Michele, whose Clifton connections are deep as well. They met 11 years ago and were married by then-Mayor James Anzaldi eight years ago. The family has four grandchildren and Keith notes, “That’s my greatest thing, my kids. They’re my legacy.” Keith walks his wife to work in the mornings and then heads to the Flag Barn or wherever he is needed; a hectic pace that’s hard to keep up with.
After all these years and many health challenges, Keith and Michele have decided to take time for themselves and will move to a mobile home outside of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina after Michele retires in July. He will miss Clifton but as he noted, airfare is cheap enough that he’ll come back as often as he can to go to doctors’ appointments, family gatherings, and other town events.
During the meetings with the Clifton Times, Keith’s phone never stopped chirping with texts and calls. Asked if he’d volunteer in his new town, Keith said he wasn’t sure what opportunities would be there, but likely, he’d stay busy in some capacity.
The Avenue of Flags will have a ceremony honoring Keith on July 9th from 1:00 to 5:00 PM at Bella Napoli Restaurant in Bloomfield. Tickets are $50 each and available at the Flag Barn between 9:00 AM and noon or you can call Marie Schultheis at 973-563-3240 or Joe Tuzzolino at 873-632-0225.
Keith Oakley says that everything goes back to him feeling "less than” as a young person, so he is always trying to give back and leave a positive mark on his community. "There’s so much you can do around here - the animals, the gardens, it’s in this town. You can volunteer...and you should."