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Crystal Lake resident builds smiles with wooden wonders

Published: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 8:47 a.m. CDT

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CRYSTAL LAKE – Whether it was making house calls to his patients or serving as a flight surgeon in the Air Force, Dr. James Keehan has always had a giving spirit.

And as he prepares to turn 93 years old Monday, the Crystal Lake resident still finds ways to keep that spirit alive and well. The man known by many Crystal Lake residents as “Papa Doc” can be found on any given day at Jewel-Osco or Joseph’s Marketplace handing out homemade wooden toys.

His passion of more than 50 years – 10 of which have been spent in Crystal Lake – has resulted in thousands of toys, such as rabbits, rocking chairs, cars and planes, and just as many smiles.

“I like to see kids happy and I enjoy making toys, so it sort of just happened,” Keehan said of the inspiration for his hobby. “Kids accept whatever you give them, but it’s always interesting to see what they choose.”

Keehan spends most of his days in his massive basement workshop surrounded by more than 250 hammers hanging from the walls and piles of wood destined to become an aircraft carrier, a train or any of Keehan’s seemingly endless ideas.

As the aches and pains of growing older set in and arthritis worsens, Keehan is no longer able to create the detailed furniture he once produced, but he still manages about 10 toys a week – a number he admits he made in a few days in his younger years.

“You adjust to who and what you are, and you do the best with the day you’re working in,” he said. “But I enjoy seeing the kids smile too much to stop.”

One common element in all the toys is their unpainted state. Keehan said he hopes the kids and family will work on and paint the toy together to make it their own creation and spend quality time together.

Residents lucky enough to find Keehan at the Crystal Lake Jewel or Joseph’s Marketplace will likely receive a bonus item for the parents. Keehan said he usually throws in a squirrel-shaped pull-me, push-me – an item designed to slide out hot oven racks and push them back in.

Marilyn Brinckerhoff, Keehan’s daughter, said that even after 50 years, it is clear to see her father finds genuine joy in his weekly work. She said he often talks about the reactions from the children and the plan for next week during the family’s weekly Sunday dinner at her Palatine home.

“He always says if he didn’t have this, he didn’t know what he would do,” Brinckerhoff said. “I’m just very proud of him that he is able to spread joy to so many people.”

But Keehan said no good deed goes unpunished. He used to hand out toys at a Crystal Lake park before a parent complaint put a stop to that.

“I received a visit from a police officer once after some parents were concerned,” he said. “The officer was very pleasant, but I just found it best to stay away from parks.”

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