By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
UPDATE: There will not be pubic funeral services. A public memorial scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m., at Keizer City Hall.
Husband, father, friend, doctorate-level teacher, mentor, champion of disability rights, author, historian and former Keizer city councilor. Jerry McGee, who passed away Jan. 11 at the age of 85 after a battle with cancer, had more roles in his life than many would consider aspiring to, but he performed them all and collected a vast array of friends on the journey.
David Johnson, a friend of McGee’s since they attended Washington’s Battle Ground High School, said McGee made sure anyone he encountered didn’t leave a stranger.
“We’d go on cruises together and every time we had a meal, we had to sit with someone new so he could get to know them,” Johnson said. “He’s always tell them we’d ‘been together’ for 60 years, and then he’d get a smirk on his face.”
McGee’s tall and lanky figure stood out in most crowds and, if there was a crowd in Keizer, McGee was probably in the thick of it. An educator to the core, he was most likely regaling whatever audience that would listen with stories of Pacific Northwest history. It was a skill he was never afraid to let shine.
“Jerry was a walking encyclopedia of Oregon’s pioneer past,” said friend Jaqueline Lusk. “There was the time Diane [Monroe] took him on a sternwheeler cruise on the Columbia for his birthday. As the captain gave his historical presentation on the river’s history, Jerry jumped right in to the delight of the passengers, adding his own facts and amusing stories, and pointing out various historical markers. The captain, being a wise man, turned it all over to Jerry’s expertise.”
McGee was born on Oct. 3, 1933 in Battle Ground, Wash., to parents Riley and Lota McGee. His education began in a one-room schoolhouse in Battle Ground and carried him to Clark County Community College, Western Washington University and, eventually, Colorado State College where he earned his doctoral degree in education.
After graduating from Battle Ground High School, however, McGee took a job as a chucktender during the construction of the Yale Dam near Amboy, Wash., and others throughout the area. Chucktenders were assistants to tunnel-drillers. McGee financed his education with mining work and, years later, wrote about the many characters he met in a fictionalized account titled Whiskey Riley.
On Sept. 11, 1953, McGee married his wife of 55-years, Shirley Rolling.
His career in teaching would lead him through many schools’ hallowed halls, but McGee was especially involved with special education students.
McGee’s second cousin, Ed Zimmerman, who was one of McGee’s first students when he returned to teach at Battle Ground High School, said he only realized how important the special needs students were to McGee in retrospect.
“He had a ‘different’ student sit in our class a couple of hours each day,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman also credited McGee, a life-long baseball fan and collegiate-level player, for instilling in him a love of baseball.
“He coached our ninth grade baseball team and a North County community team. He taught us the fundamentals of ‘little ball.’ If one reads Jerry’s book The Lewis River High Scalers and the Dam Kids you will get insights into his baseball philosophy,” Zimmerman said.
McGee’s teaching career eventually led him to take on advocacy roles within state government pushing for more equal treatment in classrooms and under the law more broadly. His presence in those discussions led him to a 10-year stint as executive director of the Salem’s Fairview State Hospital.
He retired in the mid-1980s, but, by then, McGee was a regular presence at meetings of the then-new Keizer City Council. McGee was already a past president of the Rotary Club of Keizer, but he was about to step into a much larger arena of community involvement.
“Jerry steadfastly stood up for his vision for the city and always felt free to share it with the council,” said former city councilor Chet Patterson.
Former councilor Phil Bay said there were some evenings when McGee asked him to pick up Shirley so she could be there in his stead.
“He didn’t want to miss anything,” Bay said.
He developed a reputation as a budget hawk during the meetings simply through attendance, but soon his needling pushed sitting officials to the brink. Then-Mayor Bob Newton and Bay told him it was time to put up or shut up.
“One day, I said he should get involved. And he said, ‘By golly, I think I will,’” Bay said.
McGee was elected to the Keizer City Council in 1991 and served until 2003, he is the longest-serving city councilor to date.
Despite his reputation as a staunch conservative and, at times, exhausting penny counter, the thing most fellow councilors recalled was McGee’s capacity for grace.
Patterson, who had left the council for a time, returned during McGee’s stint.
“There again I saw his devotion to Keizer and all things Keizer. While we were not always on the same page on any given issue. Jerry was always very gracious in accepting the vote of the council and then moving on,” Patterson said.
McGee’s time on the council included the most epic council meeting to date, a barn-burner that extended to the wee hours of the morning as the council debated on whether to bring a baseball team to town.
For the baseball fan in McGee, it must have been a wrenching moment, but he never failed to surprise when he ended up on the losing end of a battle.
“Jerry opposed the stadium project but was never too proud to admit that the Stadium was very good for Keizer and he was glad he lost that argument,” said Volcanoes’ owner Jerry Walker. At his retirement from the council, Walker and his wife, Lisa, presented McGee with an official team jacket.
Former councilor Richard Walsh said McGee taught him the difference between a politician and a statesman, adding that McGee was the epitome of the latter.
“Jerry taught me that a statesman uses his political power and resources to effectuate positive policies while maintaining relationships. Politicians are concerned with how a policy will affect themselves while a statesman only worries about how the policy will affect others. Jerry was a statesman in all these respects and more,” Walsh said.
Walsh also got to know McGee as an educator.
“He took the Boy Scouts from Troop 121 on a trip to his gold mine and taught us all how to prospect for gold,” Walsh said. When
McGee departed the council he gave the sitting councilors a rock from his mine with grains of gold in it “a reminder to always look at the bright spots in every situation and to see value in things that appeared worthless,” Walsh said.
His lengthy time on the council, also gave him the opportunity to mentor one of the city’s upcoming mayors, Lore Christopher. Christopher’s name was drawn from a bucket when the sitting councilors deadlocked 3-3 to fill a vacant seat. McGee supported Christopher’s opponent, and Christopher wasn’t certain what kind of working relationship would come of the circumstances.
“The person I feared the most was Councilor McGee, and I even stated that I thought I would never be able to work with him. Councilor McGee turned out to be my closest confidant and mentor,” Christopher said. “This was his nature. Councilor McGee valued every relationship and he worked to maintain and nurture close relationships. For years, I watched Councilor McGee thoughtfully listen and respectfully debate many individuals that he was on the opposite side of an issue with, yet all of those individuals felt supported and listened to.”
During his time as a councilor, McGee sowed the seeds of his next act, Keizer’s unofficial historian. He helped establish the Keizer Points of Interest Committee which has been marking historical sites through the city for almost two decades. Passion projects for McGee included marking the spot where the 45th Parallel crosses River Road North, a spot at the corner of River Road and Chemawa Road that represents the donation land claim of Thomas Dove Keizur, and a statue of Keizur himself outside the Keizer Civic Center. McGee was a regular visitor to Keizer classrooms where he dressed in character as Keizur to deliver enthralling history lessons, and he wrote about the Keizur family’s wagon train trip to the Willamette Valley in a historical novel titled It’s a Long Way to Oregon.
On news of McGee’s death and Walsh’s recollection about the gold-veined rocks, Christopher said she found herself reaching for the rock McGee gifted to her and found it alongside inscribed copies of his numerous self-published books.
“I love reading his books because I knew him so well that I can hear his voice as I read his words. It is a comfort now that we will always have him speaking to us through his books,” Christopher said.
McGee was preceded in death by his wife, Shirley, sons Shawn and Shannon McGee, and sister Shirley Olson.
He is survived by son Marty McGee; daughters Tammy McGee, Cathy Jordan and Wendy Hunt; grandchildren Wes Jordan, Brianna Hunt and Ian Hunt; and longtime friend Diane Monroe.