Mairi ‘humbled’ by Real Heroes award

Mairi O'Keefe has had a challenging and varied career. Picture: comp
Mairi O'Keefe has had a challenging and varied career. Picture: comp
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Mairi O’Keefe, chief executive of Leuchie House, has been named Community Champion of the Year in Scotland’s Real Heroes Awards.

MAIRI O’Keefe was born in Edinburgh, but her family roots are in the Outer Hebrides and much of her childhood was split between the two places.

Her father was a whaler with Salvesen in South Georgia, then worked on the lighthouse vessel Pharos, taking crews and supplies to lighthouses around the coast of Scotland. Her mother was a teacher at St John Vianney’s RC School.

Mairi went to St Augustine’s RC High and then trained as a nurse at the Western General. She worked there for a couple of years, then took a job at Edinburgh Airport as nurse and information assistant, where her duties combined dealing with sick passengers and announcing flight arrivals and departures.

In 1981, she left nursing and became an airport duty manager, working extended shifts overseeing the entire operation from loading of planes to security.

After three years, she took a break to have her family before returning to the airport part-time in 1986 as a member of British Caledonian’s ground staff. Two years later, she switched again to become a part-time immigration officer, still based at the airport.

And in 1990 she returned to BAA, the airport operators, in her original role as nurse and information assistant before working her way back up to duty manager. She went on to senior posts in the airport’s property and retail operations and eventually as a change manager involved in a £100 million project to integrate business systems.

She left BAA in 2000 and became a change management consultant, based in London, focusing on leadership training and team building. But she found consultancy frustrating. “You would recommend things and they wouldn’t do it – I just wanted to get it all done.”

Even while working in London, Mairi was living in North Berwick and when she saw an advert for a manager at nearby respite home Leuchie House, then run by the Multiple Sclerosis Society, she applied for the job and got it. She already had experience caring for a close relative and her nursing and business background made her ideal for the job. She took up the role in 2003, but in 2011 the MS Society announced it was withdrawing funding and it looked as if Leuchie would have to close.

Mairi led the fight to save the home and with just days to go before it was due to shut, she secured enough funding to set Leuchie up as an independent charity and keep it open.

She described the award as “very humbling”.

Mairi married husband Brendan in 1977. Sons Liam and Calum work in public affairs and engine design.