Opinion: Remembering a giant of a man

Al McKee passed away on Thursday (May 2). He was 85. Photo courtesy Stevenson-Carson School District/Facebook
Al McKee passed away on Thursday (May 2). He was 85. Photo courtesy Stevenson-Carson School District/Facebook

Clark County Today Editor Ken Vance remembers one of his most influential mentors

Ken Vance, editor
Clark County Today

Southwest Washington lost a giant last Thursday. And I lost one of the most influential people of my lifetime.

Ken Vance
Ken Vance

I can only remember two things about the ceremony to celebrate my 8th Grade graduation from Wind River Middle School, which took place in the spring of 1977. I wore a hideous brown leisure suit with a floral print shirt underneath. And, I received a very special gift in the parking lot after the event.

Al McKee was the father of one of my best friends, Mike McKee. Not only had Al already fed me many meals at his home by this time, and allowed me to stay over many nights, he coached me in youth sports while driving me and others all over the Pacific Northwest. He had already started to teach me life lessons and instill values in me that are still very much present to this day. 

After that graduation ceremony, Al respectfully waited until an appropriate time, and in an appropriate locale outside of the school. He personally handed me a special graduation gift. Simply wrapped in white tissue paper, it was a Bible. Although I grew up in a home with a family Bible, this was the first Bible I could call my own. I still have it to this day. 

Al went on to lead a youth Bible study group in his home that I and many other friends attended. He also was a teacher and coach of mine throughout my high school years. After high school, he was the athletic director at Stevenson High School during a five-year stretch when I served as an assistant basketball coach and assistant track and field coach.

I can still see the image of Al’s smile and hear his laugh. He had a wonderful soul and spirit. I don’t ever remember seeing Al angry. I remember seeing him disappointed, but never angry. When he was disappointed, when he needed to deliver a message, or take advantage of a teachable moment, he always delivered it with a calm and measured approach.

I’m one of hundreds of his former students and athletes who will testify that they had a special relationship with Al. I always felt Al had a special interest in me and my future. But, don’t for one moment think that Al ever let our relationship come before his obligation to me as a mentor, teacher and coach. When I needed some tough love or guidance, he was not shy about delivering it.

In my day, freshmen were not allowed to play on junior varsity or varsity teams. So, Al’s son Mike and I played freshman football. Al was not one of our coaches. When it came time for basketball season, Al was handpicked to be the coach of our freshman team. I remember the week before practice started when Al warned me that if he witnessed behavior from me similar to what he observed during football season, he and I would “have a problem.’’ We never had a problem.

The next year, when I was a sophomore, I played on the baseball team in the spring while Al coached the track team. I approached Al with an idea for me to pull off a rare feat. I asked him if I could turn out for the track team after the baseball season was over in an attempt to qualify for the district and state track meets. I needed 10 track practices to qualify, so I performed double duty and became eligible to participate in the postseason track meets. I also had clearly established marks during those practices in at least one or two of the field events (shot put, discus, javelin) which would have allowed me to qualify for the state track meet. It would have been a significant achievement. After going through all of the preparation, at the last minute, Al had a change of heart. He didn’t think it was fair to the other athletes for me to join the team so late and possibly advance through the postseason events. I never questioned his decision. It was Al. He always knew best.

One of my favorite Al memories didn’t happen to me. It happened to his son Mike. Like many of us, the first semester away at college was a difficult transition for Mike. When it came time to come home for Christmas break, Mike loaded his red Ford Pinto station wagon with every belonging he had taken to college and headed back to Carson. When he arrived at the family home, Al came out of the house to greet him. Al noticed the car packed with all of Mike’s possessions, and he firmly but lovingly told his son to bring into the home only what he needed for the vacation stay because the rest was going back to school with him. Mike dutifully obeyed and after returning to school he enjoyed a terrific four-year experience at that school, where he earned his degree and met his future wife. Al knew best.

Al was 85 at the time of his death. Not only was he a legendary athlete, teacher and coach at Stevenson High School, after his retirement from teaching he served on the Skamania County Board of Commissioners. The last time I saw him was during the pandemic. He and Mike and I took lunch down to Fruit Valley Park and visited for a couple of hours while sitting around a picnic table. About a year ago, I sent Al a text message thanking him for his role in my life and telling him what he meant to me. He gave me a wonderful response. I keep the exchange in my log of active text messages to this day.

Obviously, Al was a Skamania County icon and legend. But, many people here in Clark County knew him from his work as a teacher and coach and also his time as an elected official in our neighboring county. I also know that those who read this memory of Al, will take the time to honor the Al McKees in their own lives.

I will turn 61 years of age in July. If I could turn back time I would. But, one thing I would never do is change the time I grew up in. It’s not a cliche to say it was ‘’a simpler time.’’ It was indeed just that. My educational experience and my youth couldn’t have been better. I am so fortunate for the teachers, coaches and mentors that helped form the person I am today. And none were more influential than Al McKee.

The Al McKee Celebration of Life will be held Sun., May 19, at 2 p.m., at Stevenson High School. 

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