As word spread that Tom Keegel died last month, his family was deluged with cards, flowers and donations from grateful friends and colleagues — a testament to his lifelong mission to lift up working people.

Keegel rose from humble beginnings to the highest echelons of the labor movement, serving as general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1999 to 2012.

"He was one of a kind, a legend," said Tom Erickson, president and principal officer of Teamsters Local 120 in Blaine. "I think he was the greatest labor leader of our generation."

Keegel, of Ham Lake, died Nov. 19 after battling dementia. He was 79.

Clark Thomas Keegel was born in 1941 in Minneapolis, the son and grandson of truck drivers. He attended Patrick Henry High School, where he met Patricia Nitzschke. The sweethearts married in 1961, raised three daughters and celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary in January.

At age 17, Keegel joined Sterling Cartage as a truck driver, working alongside Teamsters who took part in the famous Minneapolis Truckers' Strike of 1934. A pivotal turning point in the labor movement, the strike led to laws permitting workers to organize and collectively bargain, including the National Labor Relations Act.

Keegel, long active in the Teamsters, was elected recording secretary of Local 544 by 1978 and then principal officer and secretary-treasurer. He was later elected principal officer and president of Local 120, and president emeritus of Teamsters Joint Council 32.

While Keegel was "the nicest guy in the world," Erickson said, he was also a tough and savvy negotiator who "was committed to building a better union": "He was a brother to everyone, a mentor to everyone and a friend to everyone."

In 1999, Keegel was elected to the Teamsters' leadership team in Washington, D.C., serving with President Jim Hoffa, who memorialized him last month as "a great partner who exemplified what it means to be a Teamster."

Keegel worked to rebuild the international union's finances, helping launch fiscal reforms, balancing the budget and establishing a strike fund. He was awarded an emeritus title at the Teamsters' 2011 convention, becoming the only general secretary-treasurer to hold the honor.

Despite his ascension to the leadership of one of the nation's largest labor unions, Keegel retained a sense of gratitude and humility. "Whenever he introduced himself, he'd say he was a truck driver," said his granddaughter Haylee Hilton, field director with the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Keegel was especially known for his fiery speeches, often punctuated with a salty phrase or two, prompting wild applause from union members. His family called it his "preacher style" of oratory, delivered with populist flair.

After retiring in 2012, Keegel enjoyed spending time with his family, including three grandchildren who called him "Papa." He often evoked the carefree phrase "Happy Days!" around his family.

In an emotional retirement speech, Keegel assured members he would remain committed to the movement.

"You don't have to worry about where I'll be and how I'm doing. I'll be everywhere," he said. "Wherever someone is fighting for respect on the job, I'll be there. Wherever there's a mother striking for a fair day's pay, I'll be there. Wherever there are people trying to organize, I'll be there.

"Just look in their eyes and you'll see me."

In addition to his wife and grandchildren, Keegel is survived by daughters Holly, of Dayton; Heather, of Phoenix; and Heidi Hilton, of Ham Lake; and a sister, Diane Lebowski, of Brooklyn Park. The family will hold a celebration of life at a later date. • 612-673-7752 @ByJanetMoore