For Grand Forks native Ed O’Keefe, the opportunity to combine his personal interests with his home state offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to leave a mark for the next generation – the creation of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
Now two weeks into his new job as CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum board, O’Keefe took time this week to reflect on his past in Grand Forks, his time in the media as a journalist and executive, and his future involvement with the state of North Dakota.
O’Keefe is a Grand Forks native who attended Red River High School, whose mascot is the Roughriders.
“You are infused at birth in North Dakota, as you know, with TR, as a legend of our state,” O’Keefe said. “I was legally obligated to do something in my life with Roosevelt, and here it is.”
As CEO, O’Keefe has been tasked with pushing forward the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, a project that backers hope to bring to Medora, N.D. The state Legislature, in the most recent session, agreed to provide $50 million in state dollars provided the library board is able to come up with $100 million in private funds. O’Keefe says the goal is to see the project completed by, roughly, 2023.
Now a resident of New York, O’Keefe was named CEO of the project earlier this month.
After O’Keefe left the state for college at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., he worked a variety of jobs in the media, starting in radio for ABC News, then switching to television, where he worked for the next 12 years before becoming the executive producer for ABC News digital. After a stint at a start-up called Now This, he joined CNN as the vice president of CNN Money and CNN Politics, before taking a job as senior vice president of content development. In that position, he worked with the network's personalities, including celebrity author, chef and travel host Anthony Bourdain, who befriended Grand Forks Herald restaurant reviewer Marilyn Hagerty.
“Actually, my ‘in’ with Tony was I was very quickly able to say I know Marilyn Hagerty,” O’Keefe said.
Bourdain was instrumental in getting Hagerty’s book “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” published. Bourdain also wrote the forward.
At the end of 2018, O’Keefe left CNN and accepted an appointment as the entrepreneurship fellow at Harvard University, where he had the dual tasks of teaching as well as researching a forthcoming book about Roosevelt, titled “The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt.”
“I found a treasure trove of unpublished letters, correspondence and newly revealed letters, 10 of which come from 1885, when he was in Dakota, writing back and forth to his sister about his experiences,” O’Keefe said. “There had never been any written record of that particular time. He had written other letters to other people, and he wrote about his time, but this was contemporaneous evidence.”
At Harvard, he met fellow North Dakotan and Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum board member Robert Lauf, who suggested O’Keefe meet with North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. The two met in New York, when Burgum visited the state for an event. The two hit it off, according to O’Keefe, who was consulting in TV media at the time.
"He is very persuasive,” he said. “It felt very providential. … I was at an inflection point. The governor of your home state comes to you and says ‘we have this once-in-a-century project that needs leadership, that needs somebody who is from North Dakota who understands what we are trying to accomplish but also has a depth of knowledge about Theodore Roosevelt.’ It just sort of came together. What better use of my time could there be than a project like this?”
Now that O’Keefe is with the organization, he said numerous tasks lie immediately ahead, including site selection and fundraising.
He said determining the location of the library is “like looking to build a town rather than where you are going to build a house.” And paramount is fundraising.
"No money, no mission,” he said. “The challenge is out there.”
It’s a challenge, but also comes with potential rewards.
“This is, from a business perspective, perhaps the greatest economic development opportunity that we could have at this moment,” he said, though he was quick to clarify that dollar signs are not the only consideration.
“Yes, of course, economic tourism, but also scholarly exploration,” he said.
And he said there will be transparency throughout the process.
“No one is going to come down from on high and say ‘here it is,’" said O’Keefe. “That will be a process that plays out parallel to fundraising.”
With his family still living Grand Forks, he says it’s like he has never been away. His father, Bill O’Keefe, owns McDonald's restaurants in town and his uncle, Tim O’Keefe, was CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation. His brother Jonathen O’Keefe is co-owner of Strive Life in Grand Forks. Ed O’Keefe said he typically returns six times a year; has already visited North Dakota three times in October.
“The idea that my personal interests could intersect with my home state in a way that hopefully can be impactful for the next generation, it was just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” O’Keefe said.