Billy Keenan returned to the school where he was once a student and teacher to deliver an inspiring message of faith to more than 100 juniors at Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia Dec. 11.
“I lived a blessed life before, during and after my accident,” he said from his wheelchair at the start of his talk in the school’s Tom Collins Gymnasium.
Keenan, a 1985 graduate of Albertus Magnus who was a teacher at the school from 1996 to 1999, was referring to a 2013 surfing accident in New Jersey, which caused neck and spinal injuries that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
The parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi in West Nyack recalled the sleepless nights in rehabilitation at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, where he cried out to God for a merciful passing.
Then a 10-minute phone call from NYPD Detective Steven McDonald changed his life. Keenan was unable to speak to McDonald, but he listened closely and received a powerful message.
McDonald, who died in January 2017, was left paralyzed after being shot three times in the back by a 15-year-old Shavod Jones while on duty in Central Park in July 1986.
“He said, ‘Billy, God has a plan for you. When you’re strong enough after your rehab is over, you have a huge role to play.
“He said, ‘Don’t ever forget that in the end there will be life,’’’ Keenan told CNY.
Det. McDonald’s widow, Patti Ann McDonald, was at Albertus Magnus and joined Keenan in front of the students when he spoke about Steven.
Patti Ann, who shared her family’s story, credited faith and support from family, friends and Steven’s caregivers for giving her husband the strength to live for nearly 31 years with his injuries. Steven McDonald forgave his shooter and shared his story at speaking engagements around the world, including many in Catholic churches.
“I remember for Steven to go on with his life as a husband and father, he had to be able to let go of that, and he did that every single day,” Patti Ann said.
Keenan, a father of two teenage boys, returned to teaching at North Rockland in 2015 and remained there until his retirement in 2017.
“My doctor said, ‘Billy, you’ve pushed your body as far as a man could push it.’ It was a crushing blow because the very thing that brought me back to life was now taken from me,” said Keenan, who served as the commander of a U.S. Army company mission to assist the poor in Honduras after he graduated from Fordham University.
“I remembered Steven’s words, ‘You still have a role to play.’ I might not be strong enough to teach five days, but there is no way I’m not strong enough to speak one or two days a week.”
Keenan and Mrs. McDonald answered questions during their hour-long presentation, which made quite an impact on the students.
“You always see these stories on the news, and it’s different when you see it in person,” said student Alyssa Pastina, 16, a parishioner of St. Gregory Barbarigo in Garnerville.
“It’s unimaginable to listen to someone’s experiences and how they continue to stay strong and keep their faith and just continue on with such a positive message. It’s really powerful to hear that.”
Another student, Adrian Duah, 16, said Keenan finding God’s presence in his life during his difficult times inspired him.
“I go through a lot of hardships,” he said. “Honestly, it’s not as bad as it could be. It helps me realize that a lot of people are going through worse things, and I’m blessed to live this life and go to this school.”
Joey Giudice’s older sister Amanda was one of Keenan’s students at North Rockland.
“He could have given up,” said the 17-year-old parishioner of St. Gregory Barbarigo. “He turned to God and got through it. I think no matter what happens in your life, you could always find a way to come back and be a role model. He’s definitely a role model. He inspired me to be a better person.”
Albertus Magnus Principal Christopher Power, a retired New York City police officer, was on duty the night McDonald was shot in Central Park. Power said he hoped the talk by Keenan and McDonald will help the juniors develop their character as young Catholics. He said Keenan, who spoke to the school’s seniors earlier in the fall, is planning to return to speak with the sophomores and freshman.
“We’re grateful to have him,” Power said. “His purpose in life has changed, but God has a purpose for everybody and he delivers that message very strongly.”