In continuation of our 75th Anniversary celebration, we take a look back at the origin of our state-of the-art Cancer Center. We thank Dr. McKeon’s daughter, Patricia McKeon Hughes, for sharing the story of her father’s life and eventual legacy at Shore Medical Center, and what it was like growing up across from Shore.
To most patients, Shore Cancer Center feels like a home because of the compassionate care they receive and the strong relationships they build with staff. But long before it was the Cancer Center, the location was a home in the more traditional sense.
Where the Cancer Center now stands was at one time a beautiful colonial house that exemplified the style and architecture of the early 20th century. Built in the late 1920s, the house was constructed by its original owner in grand scale, by early 20th century standards, and included a full basement, attic, sun porch, detached two-car garage (with its own attic) and a separate large greenhouse. This classic early American house with a white picket fence was occupied in the 1940s and 1950s by a physician named Dr. White and in 1961 was sold to another prominent local physician, Dr. George McKeon and his wife Angela. Dr. McKeon found the location very attractive to start his new practice and the house the perfect place to raise their four children: Bill, George, David and Tricia.
The proximity to what was then called Shore Memorial Hospital was the reason the McKeon family chose their new home and Dr. McKeon eventually joined the Emergency Department (ED), where he worked as a doctor from the 1960s to 1978. He simultaneously practiced primary care at the house for nearly 20 years and was one of the last of the “house-call” physicians in the area, charging $5 a visit.
So, who was this man who owned the Cancer Center property?
George J. McKeon was born in New York in 1924, the second son of five children. Times were tough, but especially for George. In 1933, when George was only nine years old, his father died. His older brother Edward became the head of the family at 13 and the Great Depression years had enveloped America.
In June of 1943 George was drafted at 18 years old and inducted into the US Army. He served as a Combat Rifleman in the 39th Regiment, arriving on the bloody beaches of Normandy on the 10th of June 1944 as a reinforcement unit just days after the D-day invasion. In September 1944, George’s left knee was hit by shrapnel from enemy mortar blast and he almost lost his leg. For three months, doctors attempted to treat him in Europe but after little success was later transferred to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC, where he spent an agonizing three years in the hospital.
It was during George’s three-year hospitalization in DC, that his passion to become a physician was ignited. Once he was released, he completed his college degree and attended medical school in Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. While studying in Ireland, he met a native Irish girl from county Kerry, Angela Henigan, and they married in 1956.
New York was their new home for a few years, but George’s Irish bride was unhappy with city life and longed for a life similar to her home by the sea. So, George looked to opportunities at the Jersey shore.
After renting houses and starting a practice first in Ocean City, then Pierson Avenue in Somers Point, it was in 1961 that they purchased and settled into the big white house with a white picket fence at 644 Shore Road, just across the street from the hospital.
The three younger McKeon children were delivered at Shore by Dr. Irving Braverman, a beloved and well-known physician featured in another recent article.
So, what was it like living near Shore?
The hospital and the family always seemed intertwined. Patricia recalls seeing the flashing red lights of the ambulances in the windows of the house, and treating it as a normal part of daily life. But the sirens were always silenced as they approached the house, out of deference to the patients at Shore.
The area surrounding the hospital carries many memories for the McKeon children who all attended St. Joseph’s Regional School.
They remember CJ’s Corner Grill when it was The Juke Box, a pizza parlor, and many years before that, a hardware store.
Across the street was Yeskco’s Sunoco Station, now the location of Shore’s Human Resources Department.
The family did their banking the old fashioned way at First National Bank, on the corner of Shore Road and New York Avenue, the former site of the outpatient testing offices, presently owned by Shore.
They walked to Gerety’s Market near the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Shore Road for the basics like milk and bread and mailed their letters at the Somers Point Post Office, now Shore’s Sleep Center. Adjacent to that building was the kids’ favorite candy and convenience store with one of the first local pharmacies, The Discount. Across the street was the Somers Point Fire House, now used for Shore’s ambulance squad.
The closeness in proximity between the house and the hospital made the hospital the McKeon’s “backyard” and sometimes, believe it or not, a playground for the kids.
During the winter months, area children would pray for snow because it meant sledding down ‘Hospital Hill,’ which was a steep slope at the top of New York Avenue to the main building of the hospital, making it the best place in the area to sled. As the slope leveled out at the bottom, there were grates that would blow out warm air, and that’s where all the kids would warm up before another few sleds down the hill.
Patricia has memories of her father getting ready for work in the morning, suit on, lunch in-hand and heading down the street (now Medical Center Way) to the Emergency Room entrance. One morning, her father forgot his lunch, so she walked down the street, making her way through the entrance. There was a long corridor with towering, hefty wooden doors on the right hand side. She peeked in and was greeted by Shore’s ED staff, including Head Nurse, Mai Brasil Worsfold (aunt-in-law of our own Dr. Charles Roche.)
Dr. McKeon worked in the Emergency Department during the 1960s until 1978 when he died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 53 while vacationing in his beloved Ireland. After his passing, the family still felt very connected to the hospital. Shore had a special place in the McKeon family’s hearts.
So, what became of the house?
The McKeon family lived in the house for many years later. Dr. McKeon’s basement office was leased out to Dr. Robert Durham and then later to Dr. David Arluck and Dr. M. Katherine Dowd, Penn cardiologists on staff now at Shore.
In 1990, Mrs. McKeon sold the house to the hospital. Shore used the house for many years as the location for their Marketing and Foundation offices. In fact, it was within the walls of the McKeon house that a $1.2 million donation was negotiated. The donors were Florence and Edgar Tomlinson. Their donation led to the construction of a new building that bears their names in which Shore’s Marketing and Foundation offices are currently located, next to CJ’s Corner Grill.
Years later, Shore planned to build a state-of-the-art Cancer Center and thought the property where the McKeon house was located would be the ideal location. The City of Somers Point approved the demolition, but the Historical Society requested that the new Cancer Center maintain a residential look. That explains why the Cancer Center, which opened in 2006, has a white picket fence, walkways, an abundance of trees and shrubs, and an overall homelike feel.
Though the house no longer remains, Dr. McKeon’s legacy lives on - not only with the thousands of patients whose lives he touched, but in the property he purchased so long ago.
Patricia shared the following thoughts,
“My dad was an achiever. His life was difficult, but he overcame many obstacles. He always strived to be, in his words, ‘the best in the business.’
I believe he would be very happy to have his beloved property used to carry on in helping people through their own very difficult circumstances and to have this cancer center be ‘the best in the business.’ I can’t imagine having a more fitting testament to my dad and his memory. We will always feel very connected to Shore Medical Center.”