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Sept. 6, 2018
This story appears in the fall 2018 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To access more stories and view the magazine in its entirety online, click here.
Kate McKee was sitting outside her Parkdale Manor residence in Maryville in June, reflecting on the former students who continue to visit her even decades after she retired from a teaching career that spanned nearly 40 years.
“Every once in a while my doorbell would ring at home and I got to the door and here’s somebody smiling,” McKee, a 1946 Northwest Missouri State University graduate, said. “They were 5 or 6 and now they look a little different. So if you go see your teacher, be sure and tell her who you are.”
As if on cue, Mark DeVore, a 1971 and 1975 Northwest graduate, approached McKee from the parking lot and warmly greeted his former first grade teacher. DeVore, who now resides in Branson, Missouri, was passing through Maryville and stopped to visit friends.
“Miss McKee, how are you doing,” he said and stated his name.
“Mark DeVore, my goodness sakes,” McKee replied, extending her hand with a broad smile.
The exchange typified the lasting impact McKee, who turns 97 this month, has had on her former students. But her impacts extend beyond the Northwest campus as she also helped introduce and set up preschool and kindergarten programs in other northwest Missouri schools.
“Working with her and learning how to work with young children made me the teacher that I became,” said Janet Dinkel, a 1958 Northwest graduate who honed her teaching skills as a Northwest student under McKee’s supervision and taught kindergarten in the Keokuk (Iowa) Community School System for 41 years before retiring in 1999.
|Kate McKee, who turns 97 this month, still resides in Maryville and receives regular visits from former students.|
“Miss McKee knew how to make each child feel welcome to learning. She taught me to never yell at the children and never talk down to them and remember they are small adults and want to feel respect the same as we all do. She was always ready to help with any problems and gave ideas to help accomplish working with young children.”
Having grown up in Holt County in northwest Missouri, McKee enrolled at Northwest at a time when parents struggled with sending their children to college. Though her father, a hardware store manager, insisted she go to college, McKee found her interest in education at a young age. She had a half-brother and half-sister who read to her frequently.
“The neighbors had big families and I always wanted to go over,” McKee said. “Mother would say, ‘Well they got enough children of their own, they don’t need you.’ So she made me stay home and then they would read or do something with me.
“I grew up as an only child so I was determined that the little ones would learn to play with each other and do things that would help them build onto as they went along. When they first came, they couldn’t read or do things like that so we would get them interested in reading.”
McKee attended Northwest but put her education on hold for two years during World War II and worked as a secretary in St. Joseph. She eventually returned to Northwest and completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
“That’s what they all did in those days,” she said of becoming a teacher. “If you were a teacher, why, that was a good job. We didn’t earn a lot.”
Life on campus then wasn’t that much different than it is today, McKee said. She enjoyed attending football games and going to movies. Maryville was home to two downtown movie theaters then – the Missouri Theatre on Main Street and The Tivoli Theatre on East Third Street.
Most classes were in the Administration Building, which was the primary academic building on the campus at the time. Colden Hall and the Garrett-Strong Science Building were years from construction when McKee was a student. “It was while I was teaching that they built other buildings and that was a big help,” she said.
McKee spent the majority of her teaching career at Northwest’s Horace Mann Laboratory School in the education hall that now bears the name of her childhood friend, Everett Brown. “We grew up in the same little town and there was one house between the Browns and the McKees,” she said. “He was one of the family. We tried to help him and my father gave him some money to go to school.”
Another recognizable name in Northwest’s history, Chloe Millikan, was an especially influential figure in McKee’s career. Millikan had trained in early childhood education at the University of New York and laid the foundation for Northwest’s early childhood program.
“She was very stern and strict, and she would tell us what we were to do and we did it,” McKee said. “She really taught me a lot. She was a very bright lady.”
Millikan’s teaching included the importance of lesson planning, no matter the age of students. “We always needed to be prepared before we started out,” McKee said. “Just because we were working with young children didn’t mean that we could just go in with anything.”
McKee began her career in 1946 as a first grade teacher and began supervising the kindergarten and preschool programs in 1950. She also taught Northwest courses centered on early childhood education.
“We did a lot of singing and, of course, I tried to get them to express their feelings and cooperate with others and learn to get along with other children,” she said of her activities with Horace Mann children. “The mothers started working outside the home and so it was a good place for them to send their little ones.”
The increase of working mothers at that time provided new challenges for the teachers, McKee said.
“Mothers were no longer at home and we could have the worst time of knowing where the bus driver was to take the child,” she said. “A 4-year-old doesn’t know either, and I’d call the parents and say, ‘You’ve got to let us know.’ It was strenuous.”
For a short time, McKee taught during the daytime hours and worked at Roberta Hall as a hall director during evenings. McKee chuckles now about students’ attempts to avoid curfew.
“They had to be in at a certain time. They’d come in but they’d also go out a window, and I found that out so I went down and sat in (the first floor lounge). I had quite a time. I told them they didn’t fool me,” she said, adding it sometimes made it hard for her to focus on grading her students’ coursework.
She also was in the residence hall on April 28, 1951, the night a gas tank exploded behind the building, resulting in a fire and the death of Roberta Steele, for whom the building is now named. “It was scary,” she said. “I had to go to every room in the building to see if there was anybody that was asleep and didn’t get out. It was kind of scary, but we did it.”
Following Millikan’s lead, McKee joined her mentor in helping to begin preschool and kindergarten programs throughout northwest Missouri.
“We had to work pretty hard to get some of them up,” McKee said “They heard about it and those little schools don’t have a lot of money. They couldn’t afford to bring people in. So we would help them. Somebody would be able to tell them how to do things, what they should do, what the programs should be.”
McKee also helped start Big Brothers Big Sisters in Nodaway County in 1968 with the Association of Childhood Education, and she actively volunteered for the Nodaway County Historical Society.
In 1951, though, McKee earned a master’s degree in education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. That experience marked the first time she had ventured away from northwest Missouri and helped shape her later interest in travel.
Never marrying, McKee retired early in 1982 and traveled frequently with her friend Dorothy Weigand, an English teacher. They visited all of the United States as well as much of Europe and Asia.
“I just liked to travel and see what the country looks like,” McKee said. “I’ve been a lot of places.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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