Robert McKee, beloved husband, father, brother, grandfather, great grandfather and visionary community member died peacefully in San Francisco on January 21, 2022.
He was born in Eureka on January 15, 1929, and spent his early childhood at the family homestead in Whitethorn. After the untimely deaths of his parents, Vernon Calvin McKee and Rebecca Snavely, he moved to Eureka to live with his paternal grandmother, Nettie Cookson. His grandmother lived on a Civil War pension,and she also rented out rooms to men who worked at the lumber and woolen mills. As a small boy, Bob began adding to their income by collecting and selling scrap metal and newspapers, beginning his appreciation for work that lasted throughout his life. In his own words, “Eureka was a wonderful place to grow up — so many things to see and do.” He loved to go out early in the morning to watch the street lights turn off, the town waking up and folks showing up for all different kinds of jobs.
In high school, Bob became fascinated with automobiles and ended up buying, rebuilding and trading all sorts of cars, motorbikes and even an airplane, an interest that never left him. He joined the Navy the day he turned 17 and worked on a destroyer tender docked in Tsingtao on the Yellow Sea in China. After the Navy, he worked in a lumber mill, drove a laundry truck, got a job at Humboldt Land and Title and also started taking classes at Humboldt State University on the GI bill.
He married Barbara Andrews in 1952. Their daughter Rebecca was born in 1953 and their son Rob in 1955. Bob worked as a timber cruiser and in his father-in-law’s grocery store while continuing to go to school part-time and building his first house, a duplex in Cutten. He loved becoming a father and said, “It was just a wonderful feeling.” Barbara and Bob realized that they had very different goals and desires in their life and ended up separating. Barbara moved to Berkeley with the kids, and Bob moved to San Francisco to be near the kids and do carpentry work. While in San Francisco, he became part of a circle of friends (some from Humboldt) who were poets, writers, teachers, and students of Buddhism. He and Valery White, who had separated from her first husband, Locke McCorkle, started spending time together, fell in love and made the decision to move back to the Mckee Family homestead in Whitethorn and start a life together. They arrived on July 1, 1957 with Val’s three kids and all of their worldly possessions. Their daughter Lela was born in 1958, a little sister for Rebecca, Sita, Tasha, Rob, and Sean. During summers and holidays, the six kids explored the forest, built forts and played in the Mattole River.
Bob got a job teaching and taught at Whitethorn, Ettersburg and Redway elementary schools. Following his teaching career, he returned to his love of design and building. His interest in buying land and developing home sites was spurred by the migration of young people wanting to escape urban life and rigid societal expectations and “move back to the land.” In order to get the building materials Bob needed for his projects, he started Whitethorn Construction. He always said you need to do more than one kind of work to make a living here, and he did that through land sales, selling building supplies and as a designer-builder.
Bob loved work and saw no difference between a work day and a day off. He worked seven days a week until he was 90. He loved people and community and helped many create homes here as well as community gathering places and open space. He and his wife Valery were married for 60 years, sharing a love for the beauty of nature, poetry and art. They collaborated on a number of creative projects.
Bob finally slowed down in the last few years of his life, spending time with friends and family, playing Texas Hold’em with his buddies, reading the Tao Te Ching, writing haikus and sitting on his deck in the sun overlooking the valley below. In his final year, he collaborated with Ray Rafael recording the story of his life. This veritable “life review” was a very satisfying enterprise for Bob and all who participated. This more reflective period was a gift to all who knew him. As his friends at Redwoods Monastery described him, “Bob had, in the last months of his life, a tenderness, an awe, an awareness that was striking.”
Bob was preceded in death by his sisters, Joyce Callahan and Jean Ridgeway, his wife Valery, his son, Sean McKee and his son-in-law, Ron Macaruso. He is survived by his children, Rebecca McKee, Sita Formosa (David), Tasha ( Jim Groeling), Rob McKee (Maryellen), Lela McKee Friel (Jimmy), his nephews Vern Callahan (Kristen), Aaron White (Shawn), Conrad White (Carlea), his nieces, Debbie Mason, Kathy Rose (Pete Gray), Cindy Lewis (Bobby), Kirsten White (Lee Robbino), Valery White (Malcolm Shuttles), and eleven grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
The family wishes to thank all of the caregivers, medical staff, mentors and friends near and far who gave much love, support and the gift of cards and flowers to Bob and his family. Our gratitude is overflowing!
A community celebration of Bob’s life will be held Sunday, September 18th, at Whitethorn Construction from 3.p.m to 8:30 p.m. I Like It Here, the oral history written by Bob and Ray, will be available at the celebration.
Donations in Bob’s name may be made to Heart of the Redwoods Community Hospice, Redwoods Monastery, or Sanctuary Forest.