SOCORRO, N.M., May 10, 2000 -- Think of John DeWitt McKee as a missionary once sent to preach the gospel of salvation to the savages, only in this case the gospel was the beauty of the written word, and the savages were the rank and file students at New Mexico Tech.
The metaphor is based on McKee's own words: Being a professor of English at a science and engineering school, McKee once said, "is like being a missionary in an outpost."
The image of McKee as a bastion of the written word is entirely appropriate. Even after he retired from Tech in 1985, McKee, who died on April 26 at the age of 80, continued his life's work of preaching the gospel of good writing.
A memorial service is planned for McKee from 3-5 p.m. on Friday, May 26 at New Mexico Tech's Macey Center. Family, friends, former colleagues, and alumni are invited to share their memories of a man remembered as the quintessential English professor.
McKee loved words, and was a master of the pun, said Dr. James Corey, Tech professor of humanities. "He was very well liked by students of both technical writing and literature," Corey said, adding that McKee pioneered an introductory course on the arts, the first Tech humanities class outside mainstream literature.
McKee retired at about the same time that Tech started its Technical Communication (TC) program. Although McKee never taught a TC course at Tech, he helped develop the curriculum, and agreed that it should be offered as a Bachelor of Science, rather than a Bachelor of Arts program.
"I have no quarrel with the sciences," said McKee in an interview published in Socorro's Defensor Chieftain in 1982. "The sciences are just a branch of the humanities. Once we get the kids in, they get interested. If we work it right, we can grab them. We can teach them a little about living instead of just making a living."
McKee knew a lot about living for a man not expected to live much beyond late childhood. He was born in 1919 with cerebral palsy, weighing a mere two and a half pounds at birth. Since there were no incubators at the time, his first months were spent in a closed basket surrounded by warm bricks.
In rural Kansas in the 1920s, "they didn't know cerebral palsy from spaghetti," said McKee. Fortunately, he had two things going for him: Tough parents, especially his mother who didn't "baby" her son; and an inherently strong will, as can be attested by anyone who ever knew McKee or spent time in his classroom.
He also gave credit to a surgeon in Kansas City, whom he once described, in typical McKee fashion, as "a crusty old bastard, but a marvel." Between the ages of five and 17, the young McKee had several operations to try to help him walk.
"I suspect that most of that was pure, 'Let's try this and see it if will work,' and it did," said McKee in the Chieftain interview.
His parents and two brothers "never let me think that there was anything I couldn't do," he said. McKee played football and baseball (although he could only throw for three innings).
The result of his upbringing was that McKee didn't consider himself handicapped; and, consequently, others tended to take his disability very matter-of-factly. But, while other kids were out roughhousing, McKee said he instead developed a love of reading and writing at an early age.
McKee started writing about sports for his junior high school newspaper, and during his summers away from Kansas Wesleyan, he wrote for the "Phillips County Review," a highly acclaimed Kansas weekly.
He majored in English literature and minored in journalism and history, and for 10 years after graduating, he worked for newspapers, starting with the Raton News and including The Albuquerque Tribune.
Eventually he received a Ph.D. in American studies. "If I had gone on to get a doctorate in English," he said, "I would have ended up spending my whole life counting the commas in Keats."
In 1959, accompanied by his wife, Jeannette, McKee moved to Socorro and joined the faculty at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. He had arrived at his missionary outpost. It may be difficult for the New Mexico Tech community of 2000 to imagine what life was like for a post-World War II English professor teaching at a small technical school.
Undaunted, McKee and the late Howard Sylvester were to set standards that continue today.
One of McKee's students was Bill Hume, now editorial page editor of the Albuquerque Journal, who wrote of one of McKee's courses: "It was perhaps the most effective I ever experienced in terms of showing how to make language say precisely what is intended, but keeping it interesting and readable at the same time.
"McKee was teaching how to make technical reports more understandable -- but his insight applied in spades to the trade of news writing as well. McKee loved his English, but to him it was a tool, an instrument for the use and enjoyment of its user, rather than a master and disciplinarian. There must be hundreds upon hundreds of former Tech students who share this advanced understanding of and relationship to English, thanks to their sojourn with Jack McKee."
McKee also was an inveterate writer of letters to the editor, very often for the Journal and the Chieftain. Woe to those who abused the English language, for McKee was ready to wield his editorial pen to - as he might have said - write the wrongs of grammar and clarity.
The Journal's Jim Belshaw remembers well the tone and texture of McKee's writing. "[McKee's letters were] marked by humor and grace, not the ham-handed hatchet jobs of today's cheap-shot cynics. Even when Jack was unhappy, he made you smile and left hope that the sinner he had in his sights might still be saved."
Since we are back to a salvation theme, this seems the proper time to mention McKee's affiliation with the First Presbyterian Church of Socorro. McKee was a devout church member, although he might object to the adjective devout. In fairness, then, let us say he was a devoted member.
In 1984 McKee published a centennial history of the church (1880-1980) called Time of Trouble, Time of Triumph. In it he recounted the names and events that shaped a church history; and, we might add, McKee himself was one of those patrons who helped guide the church as an Elder and Clerk of Session.
It was a joy to run across the McKee brand of humor amid his standard journalistic prose, such as an entry from the first chapter. In it, McKee tells readers that the first pastor of the Presbyterian Church found Socorro by accident (as many do). McKee wrote that the Rev. Mr. Fulton was headed to Albuquerque when he stopped in Las Vegas, N.M., to spend the night.
Las Vegas, then a strong rival of the bigger city to the south, painted such a convincing picture of that city's wildness, "the vices of its inhabitants, the dizziness of its climate, and the savagery of neighboring Indians, that Mr. Fulton traveled right on through Albuquerque to Socorro instead."
Continued McKee: "Had [Fulton] known about the wildness of the inhabitants of Socorro at that time, he might very well have decided to give up the whole idea."
Throughout his life, John DeWitt McKee never gave up on the principles he held as ideals, nor his vision of the world and its inhabitants.
"The happy thing about the humanities is that the questions they ask will never be answered," he said in that 1982 interview. "The topic of what it means to be human will constantly be reviewed, revised, and rewritten."
McKee might have been talking about the art of writing itself.
(Thanks to Bill Kiraly, who interviewed McKee for Defensor Chieftain in 1982; and to Bill Hume and Jim Belshaw of the Albuquerque Journal, for allowing us to use quotes from their articles on McKee.)
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