PROFILES: Going, Going, Gone Over Side Career
Thursday, November 15, 2001
Richard O'Keef

    Richard O'Keef's computer programming gig was OK, but he was looking for a little more kick in his life.
    So one day back in 1992, O'Keef finally said to himself: "What the heck. Let's go for it."
    "It" was auctioneer school in Kansas City. After two weeks of intensive instruction on how to spit out words as fast as bullets from a machine gun, O'Keef was ready to launch his side career. Almost.
    "Everybody [in the class] was just as discouraged as could be. We'd be so tongue-tied," he says. "They taught us enough to give us a good start, then I went home and practiced."
    That sometimes drove his family crazy.
    "Nobody would ride in the front seat with me," he says.
    Why would they? Why would anybody want to sit next to someone incessantly reciting rapid-fire phrases like "bibiddy, bobbidy, boobidy," or "the big blue bug bit the brown bear?"
    Eventually the words started to flow smoothly, and O'Keef landed his first job at a fund-raising auction.
    Things went a little shaky that night -- he tried to sing, something he vowed then to never do again at an auction -- but the evening was enough of a success that O'Keef decided fund-raising auctions would become his niche.
    Since then, he has dressed in everything from a toga to a tux to coax dollars from partygoers to help fund organizations like the American Lung Association, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Easter Seals.
    "I feel like I've been helpful in actually saving lives and making people's lives better," he says.
    He has auctioned off NBA players' shoes, teeth-whitening services, kisses from local celebrities and even jewelry hanging from guests' necks.
    The trick, he says, is to get people feeling good, and then get them feeling good about giving to the cause. He considers himself as much a performer as an auctioneer.
    "I once sold a $70 dinner for two for $700, just because two friends got into a bidding frenzy," he says.
    He knows he has done his job if people leave the party with empty pockets, and thank him on their way out.
    He says he knew he had arrived when Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told him after an auction: "That was the most eloquent, dignified and legal picking of the pockets that I have ever seen."
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