There will never be another Denise. Denise Keegan-O’Hara, born and raised on Long Island, found Gulfport relatively late in her life — she moved here around 2010, and embraced a community that embraced her right back.
Nine days after receiving a cancer-free diagnosis, Denise died, leaving a Denise-shaped hole in the hearts of many Gulfportians. We’ve asked some of the people closest to Denise to share their memories of her with us. They remember her passion, her quick wit, and a host of other things, but one thing everyone remembers: Denise Keegan-O’Hara had a heart of gold.
We start first with her husband, Ian O’Hara.
Ian O’Hara: Bananas and Pears
Ian met Denise because of bananas and pears.
He would head to the old Farm Store — currently Annex Coffee, but at one time a produce stand — to get bananas and pears for his kids. The produce stand had both those items inside, but things like watermelon and tomatoes outside.
“I walk into the store, I see her bright blue eyes, and I am panic stricken,” he remembers. “I picked up tomatoes and watermelon and I walked out of the area.” He went back the next day, and then the next, hoping to find a day where he could have a Denise-free shopping experience. She worked every day.
“I finally said to Ryan, ‘When doesn’t she work?’,” he laughs. “It was about eight months of tomatoes and watermelons, and my kids were just about done with that nonsense.”
Ultimately, Denise approached Ian. She approached him at his table at Boca Bay (now Drunken Taco), and told him, “I remember you from the produce stand.”
“Yeah, pretty embarrassing,” he said. “And she said, ‘buy me a drink’ and I bought her a glass of wine.”
After that, though, she played hard to get. He offered to walk her home.
“Can I walk you home?” he asked. Her reply? “No, I don’t want you to know where I live. I already knew where she lived.”
When — much later — he introduced her to his kids, and they both said, simultaneously, “Oh, my god, you’re that tomato bitch.”
He proposed to her at Pia’s.
“I proposed to her with a message on a piece of cake,” he says. “I couldn’t on bended knee because my knees don’t work that way anymore.”
When he decided to run for office — he is Gulfport’s Ward IV representative — she supported him.
“She was delighted — she really wanted me to do it. For her, it made everything full circle. She was looking to touch people in a larger way. I think this kind of formalized this for her,” he said.
“She was my advocate. She was loyal. I never had loyalty. I mean that in reference to marriage and women and that kind of thing. She was fiercely loyal,” he said. “And you were definitely aware if she didn’t like you.”
Even Ian wasn’t safe.
“Every night, from 8:15 to 8:45, we’d settle down and it was ‘Roast Ian.’ At the celebration of life they’re doing a ‘What Would Denise Say?’ — and it wasn’t always kind,” he says, but adds, she was “a marshmallow inside; she would give you the shirt off her back.
“You could see that with her friends. They’ve all jumped on board and they’re putting together the celebration of life and completing a couple of projects she was unable to complete — Art in the Yard, for example, Eagle and Cheryl are putting it together in Eagle’s yard, instead of here.”
Lorenzo, her dog, is a little lost without Denise.
“He’s still looking for her. He sniffs at her bedside, the spot where she sits on the couch,” he says. Denise and her then-boyfriend Jed adopted Lorenzo at Get Rescued.
“He was Denise and Jed’s dog, then he was Denise and Ian’s dog, now he’s Ian’s dog,” Ian says. “He’s my puppy. He’s such a good dog. He wants everybody to sit down. You come in the house, you have to sit down.”
We had a lot of plans for 2024.
What does Ian want people to remember about Denise Keegan?
“Her kindness, her love of the city, the fact that she never took credit for anything,” he says. “Whenever anybody needed something, she was there. Without even [being] asked, she was there.”
One example? A benefit for Jackie Kreuter. Denise organized it to help Jackie sell off her Funkytown Boutique items and didn’t tell Jackie — until after the fact.
“Don’t you think it’s going to piss her off?” Ian asked.
“Of course it’s going to piss her off, but she’ll be happy in the end,” Denise replied.
Captain Noreen Smith: Lorenzo and the Backseat Driver
“I met my neighbor, Denise Keegan back in 2013 when her dog, Lorenzo would run over to my house for some love. Our relationship progressed over the years. On Mondays, I would go over to her house, drink wine, and help in creating new art. I always had to fix something around the house or do this and that for an art project. Sometimes we just got caught up on the latest Gulfport gossip.
“Denise didn’t drive or have a car, because she was terribly frightened and was a backseat driver which always pissed me off, but… I would take her to wherever she needed to go.
“When Denise went over to the East Coast to visit her daughter, Eagle Finegan and I were designated as ‘Ian’s house husbands’ (we still have that distinguished title now). On her return, Denise made Eagle and I drive to Orlando to pick her up after the train ride. We of course complied. Denise … sat in the far back seat of the van and was actually pretty calm coming home, which was shocking.
“We rode around town in her trike, laughed, argued (she always won), danced, and organized fundraisers with the help of other close friends.
“My heart is broken over this terrible tragedy. She will always live in my heart and I will cherish the memories we shared over the years. Denise was a true friend, good wife, and gave freely, always.”
Eagle Finegan: Mermaid Dress and Wine Openers
“Denise was complicated, very giving, very talented, [and] a pain in the ass. Very honest — you knew exactly where you stood, and just one of the most giving humans I’ve ever met.
“She always gave back to the community, big and small. And you always knew she was there. She knew everyone, whether they liked her or not; she probably introduced me to more people in this town than one could meet on their own. She was ‘Gulfport weird’.”
The Mermaid Dress Photo Shoot
“She was gifted what she called the Mermaid Dress from Jackie’s Funkytown, and she bugged the shit out of me, ‘gotta take the photos, gotta take the photos’. We set the time and date, and in her fashion, she showed up late… and we did this photo shoot when the building behind O’Maddy’s was vacant and half-built.
“She was like, ‘In there?’. I said, ‘Yes, trust me’.
“She had practiced her poses, and I wanted things a little more natural. The banter back and forth was hysterical. It was just her, in this dress she thought she was fabulous, in her tiara, and ‘I’m going to be fabulous and you’re going to catch it’. We did it in about an hour, and it was hysterical.
“Denise had a knack of reading people. Sometimes it might have been a little more honest than you wanted to hear, but it was normally on target. She was fearless and a badass and a pain in the ass.
“The whole mermaid dress said who she was. It was out there, it was fun, she wanted to be fabulous, she was fabulous, and she went for it.”
Denise had a giving side — with a touch of humor.
“When Jackie Kreuter was dying, there was this character from Whoville with a wig, and she built this costume around the wig.”
Denise took a bus to Palms of Pasadena, and showed up at Jackie’s bedside.
“Jackie opened her eyes and said, ‘I know I’m not dead.’ Who would walk into a hospital bed wearing what she wore? It was silly, but happy.
The Wine Opener
“I don’t drink that much and she popped over to my cottage with a bottle of wine, and I didn’t have a wine opener. For years, she gave me crap: ‘What house doesn’t have a wine opener? I’m not coming over’; ‘Well, open it before you come over.
“No, Denise, I still don’t have a wine opener.”
Debbie Amis: A Kiwi Cake and a Mermaid
“I met Denise shortly after we opened Little Tommies. She soon had us saving caps and corks for the Mermaid that currently hangs at The Tiki. She told me it was her first one. There have been many photos taken with it and of it and many conversations about the artist, Denise. It has inspired many and brought many oooos and ahhhhs through the years. I can’t imagine it not hanging there. She tried taking it back one day when she was mad at us for employing someone that she felt was doing one of her friends wrong. I wouldn’t give it back. That was Denise, always standing up for her friends and wanting to help with whatever she could.
“We had many creative art conversations that led from one idea to another, that I know we both enjoyed.
“I don’t know that I can explain the sweetness of one of our last times together, but I’ll try. She and Ian were at The Tiki, talking about Tommy’s Hideaway’s kiwi cake and how delicious it was. The next week, she stopped by and asked if I’d like to share a piece with her. I said yes, of course. She said, ‘I’d like that very much.’ It was so sweet, so sincere. It really hit me, what she was going through. She picked it up, brought it back and got the table ready for us. We shared it and talked. So special… a kiwi cake and a mermaid.”
Anita McLaughlin: A Postcard from an Almost-Stranger
“I did not know Denise very well at the time I received this. She was very good friends with my son and Tommy. It came randomly in the mail one day. I’m so thankful she thought to share this special memory with me.”
Debbie Stevenson: Rum Cakes and Hurricane Irma
Denise was a giver. Always. Even when she couldn’t afford it, she gave. She was the first to offer help. You never needed to ask. She was there, helping however she could.
In 2017, when we thought Hurricane Irma was going to wipe us all out, we ran into Denise the day before the hurricane was to hit. She was working at Tangelo’s. They were the only ones open that day. We asked if she was ready. She was going to ride it out at Jon Ziegler’s. The only thing she had packed was the sparkly Famous Mermaid Dress.
“She and Ian got married on Dwight’s and my anniversary, April Fools Day. We were just 16 years ahead of them. She asked me to make my Grandmother’s famous rum cake for her wedding. I made 12 rum cakes for the reception. And then I made them one for their first anniversary. When I took it to them, I included a bundt pan, and the top-secret recipe. Denise has been in charge of rum cakes since then.
“I will miss her terribly.”
Monika Taylor: Boggle and Activism
“Our Denise was always a party girl, but [it was] not unusual to see her working six days a week. In the past she sold vacuums, was a math tutor, an exotic dancer, and, of course, restaurant work of all kinds. She was a well-known artist, famous for her use of recycled items (“Tossed and Found”); she could make art out of just about anything! She had her start with painting portraits and abstract pictures, I believe.
“Denise was an activist who cared about equal rights. We lied on the pavement at Gulfport police station for nine minutes during the George Floyd march. She had a huge passion for helping people. She would donate to any event going on: her time, her art, food, or famous rum cake, maybe some sangria for everybody.
Sunflowers for a Gulfport Family
“If there wasn’t already something organized for someone , she would get a fundraiser started! Like her Ukrainian immigrant benefit (upstairs at the big blue building) when a family came to Gulfport with nothing. [We] would gladly be helping before we knew what hit us! She joined in all holiday events and was one of the 10 original witches before it turned into the Witch Walk, with hundreds of us dancing in the streets on Halloween.
“She was always on hand to help anyone else with costumes or decorations. When one of her many friends happened to be sick, she was the first one there with food or company daily. She was highly intelligent and so fun to play board games with… except Boggle, when she beat me every single time! She was amazingly supportive and spent tons of her time during Ian’s two runs for City Council. We drew purple top hats on Gulfport sidewalks with purple chalk on voting day!
“She was my constant friend for 10 years. The person I could drop in and hang out with any time. She somehow inspired a creative side to me just through suggestions and her passion for art and crafts.”
Monika describes Denise’s as tough on the outside, but a sweet, giving woman through and through.
“She was tough and ‘no nonsense’; at the same time, as kind and generous. She always knew who she was and what she wanted and how she wanted it done.”
And when she was ill?
“She barely complained to me while she was so sick. Her strength and dignity and relentless energy will always be an inspiration to me.”
Celebrate Denise Keegan-O’Hara’s Life
Denise’s closest family and friends invite those who loved Denise to her Celebration of Life.
The Tiki Bar and Grill, 5519 Shore Blvd. S., Gulfport. Nov. 15: 5-8 p.m. 727-498-8826; the-tiki-bar-and-grill.business.site
Denise Keegan-O’Hara Lives On
Denise had a hand in almost every art event in Gulfport, and a few non-art events. If you appreciate or attend any of these events, you benefitted from Denise’s life.
“Gulfport is losing an icon. It’s amazing how many things she was a part of, or an originator,” Ian says. This is by no means a complete list, but here are a few of Denise’s passion projects
The Witches Walk: Denise was one of the original witches.
Art in the Yard: Denise and a few others created it in response to ArtJones. According to Ian, “The juror group of ArtJones would not accept this — I think — delightful group of artists.”
Santa Rampage: She was part of the original group that got together and said, “Let’s do this!”
COVID-19 Golf Cart Parade: Denise, the Meeks, Suzie King, and Melanie King said “There’s some lonely people out there” and created the parade.
Clothing Swap: Originally, Linda Worsham, Jody Zelman-Robinson, and Denise
Sunflower paintings to help Eric Cudar’s Ukrainian family.