The voice behind McGruff the Crime Dog

Nick Keil reflects on the life of his late father, John "Jack" Keil, who was best known as the voice of McGruff the Crime Dog.

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WESTMINSTER WEST — If you learned about stranger danger, what to do when you witness a theft and how to say no to drugs — all from a cartoon dog — you're not alone.

McGruff the crime dog has been "taking a bite out of crime" for over 30 years. His creator and portrayer, however, hung up his trench coat for good.

John "Jack" Keil, the voice of McGruff, died peacefully at home in Westminster West on Aug. 25. He was 94.

His son, Nick Keil, who also lives in Westminster West, reflected on who his father was and what he contributed to the world.

Jack Keil was a World War II veteran. He was always an entertainer, Nick said.

Jack went to New York City looking to become an actor.

Instead he wound up at an advertising agency, responsible for creating slogans and ads for Toyota and Life Savers. He helped come up with the "cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs" slogan. In 1977, the National Crime Prevention Association approached Jack about an ad campaign that would create awareness about crime.

Jack took a cue from the Smokey the Bear campaign by creating an animal mascot. It was only natural that Jack would become the voice of McGruff.

"Keil's life is a long-running performance," noted a 1988 Smithsonian feature on him.

Nick agrees. "The world was his stage," he said. That, he said, was the theme during Jack's memorial service. His love of entertainment and his wackiness.

Nick saw a different side to his father, though; the side that was, "wise," and a side that could be stern, almost like McGruff himself. And beyond the glitter and glam of Jack's ever persisting character, Nick said, was a deep passion for social justice, a need to give back, a love of hard work and strong self assurance.

Jack had a second home in Westminster West but he and his wife Barbra were, "creatures of New York City," Nick said. At 21, Nick was already living in Vermont when his parents decided to move there full time.

Nick said his father was something of a local celebrity, having performed at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River a number of times.

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The McGruff voice was a variation of Jack's real voice, maybe a little gruffer.

"He was not shy about using that voice," Nick said.

When his father was sick and in Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, leading up to his death, he'd surprise the nurses with his McGruff voice. He also kept a yellow legal pad notebook full of lists of things he could converse about. One list was just about things that made him angry.

Jack didn't slow down in his old age. Nick said people would come up to him and ask why they would see his father out running every morning even though he looked like he might fall over. Nick said the family had to practically drag Jack off of his tractor (he loved haying), and up until three years ago he was still playing tennis.

When he started losing his eyesight, he still insisted on reading his copies of the New York Times and the Brattleboro Reformer using a magnifying glass; even if he could just read the headlines, he wanted to be informed.

"What do I say about him that people don't already know?" Nick asked. Jack was an open person. Nick said that in recent years his father had been appalled by the political climate of the U.S. by the "swing towards fascism." Nick had suggested that Jack use his fame towards promoting his beliefs. But Jack thought McGruff shouldn't be used for his personal agenda.

Jack also loved to sing. He sang in the Butterfly Swing Band. He wrote two books about creativity, "How to Zig in a Zagging World," and "The Creative Mystique: How to Manage it Nurture it and Make it Pay."

Nick remembers his father taking him to see the World War II bomber planes flying. "This low rumble came from the horizon and this very large, very slow plane comes rumbling in," said Nick, adding that his father turned to him and said, "That was the sound we'd hear after we landed and you'd be counting the planes that came back to see who made it back and who didn't."

At Jack's memorial service, Nick said, people spent time remembering how full Jack's life was — his time spent traveling, creting an anti-drug campaign with Drew Barrymore, or when he sat in his underwear next to TV-host Dick Cavett. Later, an animation of McGruff would be superimposed onto him.

Nick showed off a picture of his father with Dick Cavett.

"He seemed very at ease sitting with Dick Cavett in his underwear," he said.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.