Richfield vet heads up local Veterans for Peace group

By Sue Webber

Contributing Writer

Steve and Joan McKeown work together on social justice issues, including Veterans for Peace. (Submitted photo)

Steve McKeown was drafted in 1965 and served for two years as a radio operator in Vietnam. He’s got the effects of Agent Orange to prove it.

Since 1986, the Richfield resident has been the linchpin for the local chapter of Veterans for Peace, an organization that includes several hundred vets from Minneapolis-St. Paul and the suburban areas.

“We’re mainly an educational group,” McKeown said. “We’re using our experience to speak at schools, churches and colleges. We work with other organizations for peace.”

VFP celebrates Armistice Day on Nov. 11 with bell ringing, rather than a 21-gun salute. They get together on retreats, enjoy social activities and get to know each other’s families.

“We have a lot of volunteers at the Veteran’s Administration,” McKeown said. “It’s what we do.”

The group bought a little school bus that is designated an education center for peace. “I’m kind of excited about it,” McKeown said. “We travel around in it and promote the idea of peace.”

The VFP chapter also sponsors a speech and essay contest, as well as supplying banners to schools and sponsoring peace poles.

One of McKeown’s big efforts is to educate people about the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an international agreement signed in 1928 in which signatory states promised not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.”

The Pact, officially known as a General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy, stipulated that parties failing to abide by the promise “should be denied the benefits furnished by this treaty.” The Pact renounces the use of war and stipulates that signatories should settle disputes in a peaceful manner.

Fifteen nations signed first, and 47 signed later. “It was the greatest peace movement the world has ever seen,” McKeown said. “The pact passed 85-1 in the Senate. The only person against it said it wasn’t strong enough. That shows what’s possible. All the Post Offices displayed the pact. Can you imagine that happening?”

The pact was signed by Germany, France and the United States first, and then by most other countries. “The pact has been tough to enforce,” McKeown said. “But it’s still law, like the Indian treaty. Some people say it’s too idealistic.”

It is named for its authors, U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand. Kellogg won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.

Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul was named for Kellogg, who was a Minnesota resident, McKeown said. Kellogg was born in New York, moved to Minnesota as a young boy, and practiced law in Rochester in 1877. He was the city attorney of Rochester from 1878-81 and then the Olmsted County attorney. He moved to St. Paul in 1886.

Past experiences

McKeown’s intense interest in banishing international conflict started early in his life. “I knew about the [Kellogg-Briand] pact in high school in Elkton, South Dakota,” McKeown said. “I paid attention to war.”

His grandfather was wounded in WWI when he served in the French-Canadian Army, and McKeown lived with him before and after he served in Vietnam.

McKeown’s father served in the U.S. Army and spent 32 months in combat with the 3rd Infantry Division, mainly in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, including Anzio. He won the Bronze Star for bravery under fire. McKeown also has a niece and nephew who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He went to college on the GI bill, attending Normandale Community College and getting a degree in geography from the University of Minnesota in 1978. McKeown worked as a machinist, and has lived in Richfield for 46 years in what he calls “a tight-knit neighborhood.”

After his first wife died, McKeown met the woman who would become his second wife, Joan Johnson, on the Lake Street-Marshall Avenue “peace bridge” over the Mississippi River in 1999. The couple helped to start the weekly peace vigil of activists that still gather on the bridge at 5 p.m. every Wednesday for an hour-long vigil against war.

The McKeowns are both active in peace and justice issues through their church, and also are avid gardeners in the Richfield Community Garden. McKeown and VFP President Larry Johnson go to annual theology classes at the Academy of the Holy Angels in Richfield.

The Johnsons have two sons and a granddaughter.