Growing up in Auburn, Brian McKeon was exposed to government and politics at a young age.
McKeon's father, William, chaired the New York State Democratic Party. The elder McKeon served as counsel to state legislative committees and was a state Board of Elections commissioner.
"Given my father's career in politics and law, it was probably a little bit in my DNA that I would gravitate toward the career I ended up doing," Brian McKeon said in an interview with The Citizen.
McKeon, a member of the Auburn Alumni Hall of Distinction Class of 2019, was surprised when he was informed by one of his brothers that he was nominated for induction. It was unexpected recognition of a long career in public service that was not only born out of his family's civic engagement, but experiences he had as a student in Auburn.
He recalled class trips to Washington that showed him a world outside of his hometown. His interest grew during his undergraduate studies at the University of Notre Dame. Between his sophomore and junior years, he interned for longtime U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y..
"That was a terrific experience and led me to want to come back someday," he said.
After graduating from college, he applied for a job with then-U.S. Sen. Joe Biden's office. Biden, who represented Delaware in the Senate before becoming vice president in 2009, has his own ties to Auburn. His late wife, Neilia Hunter Biden, was an Auburn native. Her parents owned Hunter Dinerant on Genesee Street.
McKeon wasn't aware of it at the time, but Biden's former father-in-law may have played a role in helping him get the job. Biden told McKeon years later that he received a call from Robert Hunter.
"It sounded like my father called Hunter and asked him to put in a good word for me, so Biden was quite aware of the Auburn connection," he said.
McKeon, who earned his law degree at Georgetown University Law Center, rose to upper level positions within Biden's Senate office. From 1988 to 1995, he served as a legislative assistant for foreign policy and defense. He left Biden's office to work as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar and was part of former President Bill Clinton's foreign policy staff during the 1996 campaign.
In 1997, McKeon returned to the Senate. He worked as chief counsel to the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He held that position until 2009, when Biden was sworn in as vice president.
For three years, McKeon was Biden's deputy national security adviser. He held national security posts in the White House, including chief of staff of the National Security Council, before becoming principal deputy undersecretary for policy at the Department of Defense — a position he held for three years, from 2014 to 2017.
During the final months of President Barack Obama's second term, he was the acting undersecretary at the Pentagon.
His interest in national security and foreign policy began in college. He spent a semester abroad in London and took classes on international affairs and British politics. That interest continued when he had an internship out of college at a human rights group that focused on Latin America.
"I just found it very interesting and exciting," he said. "I just got lucky. I ended up getting some really great jobs, both in the Senate and the executive branch, with different sets of experiences."
McKeon is now the senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, D.C. He described the center as a combination of an academic institute and think tank. There are several former Obama-Biden officials who are affiliated with the center and share their expertise on various foreign policy issues, whether it's through writing essays or delivering speeches.
On the academic side, the center holds events in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's an outpost for Penn to try to connect the academic community with the policy community (in Washington) and also to bring the policy community to Penn through the vice president and myself and other colleagues who've had long careers in the field," he explained.
When he returns to Auburn in May, he's eager to participate in the engagement activities required of inductees. There's a day planned for McKeon and other members of the 2019 class to meet with students.
His advice for students entering public service or any field: Find something you enjoy.
"It's tough to get up every day and do something you don't enjoy, whether it's public service or not," he said. "I think that's one of the important things."