Long before Kieko McKeon taught art at Central Islip High School, she made bombs in her native Japan during World War II, pressed into national service, her family said.
She was a 20-year-old newspaper clerk when the atomic bomb decimated Hiroshima, but McKeon embraced opportunities stemming from the U.S. victory, those who knew her said.
She worked as an interpreter for about a decade at The Exchange, the store at the U.S. military base in her hometown, then taught block printing and other art forms for eight years at elementary schools for the children of military families.
“She had that drive,” said her stepson, Brian McKeon of Levittown. “Even in Japan, she did so much on her own . . . She was such a nice, wonderful person.”
The Hauppauge resident died on her birthday, April 29. She was 98.
She was creative, from making flower arrangements to sculptures, those who knew her said. When her husband, Robert McKeon, died in 2012, she designed rings out of his tie clips, her stepson recalled. Her gifts were stylishly wrapped, sometimes with beautiful cloth, he said.
McKeon showed her gratefulness to people, even for small gestures, by inviting them to parties or giving them something she made, family and friends said.
“It seemed to me she wanted to do something nice for everyone,” said her friend Marilyn Amodio of Hauppauge.
The eldest of six, she was born Kieko Takubo in the ancient castle town of Kokura. Her mother came from the samurai class and her father was a businessman.
Her father’s connections got her into Asahi News, a major newspaper, and she was in the Kokura newsroom when it “went wild” after hearing about Hiroshima, Robert McKeon said.
After the bomb strike, McKeon was compelled into national service, reluctantly leaving her clerk position to work in a bomb factory.
“It was so sad because I’m like ‘Oh my God, here’s this woman who’s an artist and art teacher’ and you hear these stories of what life must have been like and how tough it was that she got put in this position because they needed the women,” her stepson said.
As Japan recovered, McKeon painted landscapes and exhibited her works. She pursued her love of gardening and flowers, winning first prize at an international flower arrangement show in 1963. She got her art teacher’s license at Musashino Art University in Tokyo in 1961.
While teaching, she met Robert Dunbar, a widower who was an industrial analyst and inspector for the U.S. government.
Through his sponsorship, she arrived in Brooklyn in 1964 to study at New York University, where she got her master’s in art education in 1969.
That year, she and Dunbar married and moved to Central Islip, where she taught high school students from 1970 until her retirement in 1990.
After Dunbar’s death in 1980, she submitted a personal ad in what was likely a Catholic publication, those who knew her said, and met Robert McKeon, a retired New York City corrections captain. They married in 1989.
She introduced him to sushi; he helped her catch a love of golf; and together they enjoyed trips abroad, Mets games and parties at home.
Age never stopped McKeon from being “feisty” and embarking on major home renovations, her family and friends said. Eight years ago, as she retained her independence with health care aides, she planted an apple tree in her yard, telling her stepson, “I never had children. I want something that produces.”
She once refused to go to the hospital after taking a medication at the wrong time and fainting in church, insisting she was going to dine with church friends, Amodio said.
After getting checked out by a doctor in the ambulance, she and her walker emerged victorious as the doctor told churchgoers, “Take the lady to the diner,” her friend recalled.
Besides her stepson, McKeon is also survived by a brother, Takayuki Takubo of Yokohama, Japan; and stepdaughters Karen McKeon of Jamaica Estates, Queens, and Maureen Carragee of Queens Village.
A Mass was celebrated May 2 at St. Thomas More Roman Catholic Church in Hauppauge, followed by burial at Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.