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A History of Success, A Future of Promise

Hall of Fame

The Honorable Dennis J. Keough

Ambition Overcomes Adversity

The Honorable Dennis J. Keough, a judge of the Superior Court in Orange County, has served on the bench for more than 30 years. Before his Santa Ana College experience, however, Dennis wasn't sure that a college education was within his reach.

Growing up as the youngest son of a first-generation Irish family, Dennis recalls his father and mother  instilling in him and his brothers the principle of hard work, putting one foot in front of the other each day until one's goal is achieved. Thus he understood at a young age that education, direction and ambition would fulfill his spirit and equip him with the right tools to attain his personal dreams.

His father, a Pennsylvania Railroad electrician, passed away when Dennis was just 16 years old, and he and his widowed mother moved to Southern California, where he was inspired by his older brother Lawrence's career as a Fullerton College English professor. Yet the following year found Dennis adrift in Santa Ana, with scant resources save his wits and determination to succeed.

Growing up in the shadow of Pittsburgh's heavy industries, Dennis was aware that his ultimate goals would be rigorously demanding and challenging. He wanted to pursue learning but knew he needed to overcome economic obstacles and breach social barriers to acquire the tools necessary to make a difference in his own life. Because he looked forward to the opportunity to contribute something of value to the community, he realized that the law, with all its possibilities, should be his professional goal.

Santa Ana College became Dennis's first and most important step by providing an affordable, flexible education to him and other financially strapped students. "I was living on my own and things were economically challenging," Dennis recalled. "The notion of having a job and going to college was complicated, but the access to education delighted me."

Dennis remembers hitch-hiking to campus and experiencing a sense of exhilaration when attending college classes. "For my own dreams and ambitions, Santa Ana College was significant and my experience there was marvelous," he said. One economics professor particularly impressed him with his patience and consideration as he worked with students to make the complex subject digestible. "I walked away with the sense that what seems to be a challenging body of learning can in fact be approached and understood," he said.

After earning his Associate of Arts degree in 1969, he headed to Cal State Long Beach and then to law school at Ole Miss, a stone's throw from Nobel Laureate William Faulkner's storied Antebellum home. As an avid reader of the celebrated writer's work, he was thrilled with the opportunity to meet Faulkner's sister-in-law, who shared anecdotal stories about the renowned author and his family.

During his last semester of law school, Dennis served as a legal intern with the Greenwood, Mississippi, public defender's office, rendering legal services to indigent defendants – an experience he describes as tremendously satisfying and rewarding. With law degree in hand, he hung out his shingle in Lincoln, Nebraska and was soon appointed an associate county judge, a position that provided the rich experience of presiding over the six county courts of the state's 5th judicial district.

Anxious to return to California, Dennis left the Nebraska court to join the Santa Cruz District Attorney's office, where he was assigned a wide range of responsibilities. An article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel described him as one of "the best and brightest of Santa Cruz's assistant district attorneys." In February 1986, he was appointed by the Superior Court of California as a juvenile court referee for the County of Orange. In 1989, Dennis was named a California Superior Court commissioner. He has been a Superior Court judge since his 2009 gubernatorial appointment.

"I hope to be an example to students to show what Santa Ana College can provide – a foundation, access to education, and an opportunity for future success," Dennis said. "I want to inspire kids to make their own dreams come true and to make the world a better place."

In his 29-year career on the bench, Dennis has heard some of the Superior Court's most significant cases. Since 2003, he has ruled on child abuse and neglect cases in the court's Juvenile Division.  In his four-decade legal career, he has received numerous accolades and honors, including the 2009 Judicial Honoree Award from the Orange County chapter of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), and a 1997 recognition from Western State University College of Law for his "outstanding contributions to the courts and the justice system."

He is a founding member of the Warren J. Ferguson Chapter of the American Inns of Court at Chapman University School of Law and a founding member of the Celtic Bar Association. He is a faculty member of the California CASA Academy and a lecturer, instructor and volunteer judge for several associations.

On weekends, Dennis and his wife Sherie, who recently retired from the Orange County Office of County Counsel, tend to their citrus ranch near Fallbrook, California.