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In the end, Keyes portrait mix-up was a happy mistake

CONCORD - Mistakes happen and sometimes it is better that way, said relatives of a New Hampshire statesman who finally took his rightful place in the hall with other past governors on the second floor of the State House.

The correct portrait depicting the Honorable Henry Wilder Keyes, governor of New Hampshire from 1917-1919 and United States senator from 1919-1937, was unveiled on Wednesday.

For Sally Keyes Reffew of Essex Junction, Vt., it was the first time she had seen an image of her grandfather.

"Oh" she said, as the artist Craig Pursley of Bath withdrew the black drape from the gold-framed portrait of Keyes as people clapped in the Executive Chambers. She patted Pursely on the back in thanks.

Reffew noted that Keyes, pronounced like "eyes," is better known now than ever for his quiet but effective leadership because the portrait mistake came to light.

Her family and friends helped raise the funds to commission the portrait, which was donated to the citizens of the state.

Keyes, of North Haverhill, served one term as governor and three terms as U.S. senator. A Harvard graduate from the Class of 1887, Keyes was a country farmer who organized the Woodsville National Bank in 1897. He was an advocate for the White Mountain National Forest and had great interest in farm legislation.

There had never been a portrait of him in the State House along with other former governors. One that was hung in 2005 was misidentified as Keyes.

This past fall it was determined the portrait was that of Congressman Jacob Hart Ela of Rochester (1820- 1884). Former state Sen. Dean Dexter, whose grandmother knew Keyes' wife, first questioned the authenticity of the portrait.

Keyes' wife Frances Parkinson Keyes, who was 18 when she married the 42-year-old bachelor, went on to become a best-selling novelist. It was some of her descriptions of her husband, a rugged outdoorsmen, and a photograph from one of his campaigns that helped Pursley develop the portrait.

Reffew was joined by her sister, Frances Keyes Keidel of Devon, Pa., and their cousins, Louise Keyes Moon of Hanover and Peter Keyes of Newbury, Vt., to see the painting. Keidel had informed the committee that she believed that there was a mistake in the portrait labeled as her grandfather.

The family commissioned award-winning artist Craig Pursley of Bath, who said it was an honor to have been chosen.

Moon said that although she never met her grandfather "he was a quiet person, very effective. A wonderful man." Reffew noted his impact was felt also in Washington, D.C., where he was influential in construction of a bridge to Arlington National Cemetery and the Supreme Court, where his name is etched in the wall.

Frances Keyes Keidel said the family has been amused and pleased the mistake happened, "because now he can receive his proper recognition."

For Peter Keyes, a retired history teacher at Milton Academy with a passion for politics, "having my grandfather recognized has been really wonderful."

Dexter thanked Secretary of State Bill Gardner "who helped us get to the bottom of this" and the family for moving quickly to help give Keyes his due.

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Paula Tracy may be reached at ptracy@unionleader.com.

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