Wayne McKay was one more special person!

Published 4:43 am Saturday, May 3, 2003

By By Lloyd Albritton
Having grown up as a Mississippi country boy himself, and having been an all-star running fullback at Mississippi Southern in his college years, Coach Joe Latham always thought the best early practice field for young developing athletes was their own natural habitat, the rough plowed fields and thick piney woods which characterized the south. Country boys reported to the football field prepared by years of running across terraces, jumping ditches and tree stumps and dodging gopher holes and briar patches. He often boasted that, when he was a boy, he learned to run fast by chasing rabbits for his dinner, that he would often run a rabbit down and feel of it first to see if it was fat enough to catch and eat.
Accordingly, in the warm spring of 1963, following spring training at Ernest Ward High School, Coach Latham designed a long cross-country course through the woods behind the old school gym. During the last period of the day, when most of the football players took their regular Physical Education class, we were required to run this course to build up our endurance and running agility.
Coach Latham must have forgotten another important instinct possessed by every country boy. You see, when a country boy gets close to a creek, he can smell it and he begins to think about diving into that icy cold water on a hot day and he will be drawn to it. Consequently, it did not take us long to blaze a little clandestined trail off-course right down to a sweet swimming haven underneath a big bridge on the dirt road not far from the gym. Each day we would all embark into the woods on Coach's obstacle course with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm. We would run straight to the creek, strip naked, swim awhile, then return to the gym via the course exit point just in time to catch the school buses home. After several weeks of this routine, Coach Latham and his personal friend and fellow teacher, Wayne McKay, who coached the school's basketball team, began to take note that we were taking a little too long to complete their course. They also noticed that we always seemed to return with the seats of our dungarees wet. The convincing clue, I later learned, was when Coach McKay noticed in the gym showers that all the boys were acquiring good summer tans underneath their britches.
Naturally, much of the fun of this daily swimming adventure was in the fact that we were getting away with something. Each time we heard a car coming down the road, everyone would scurry into the bushes and hide until the car crossed the bridge and drove on up the hill. One day we were having a fine time at the creek when we heard a car coming and everyone ran to hide. When the unidentified car crossed the bridge and the engine noise began to fade, we all came out of hiding in our tanned birthday suits as usual, only to be surprised by Mr. McKay's red Ford station wagon speeding in reverse back down the hill to catch us all red-handed. As he stepped out of his car to confront us, he tried his best to put on a stern face and bark at us in that unique, Mississippi-accented, booming voice of his which, but Mr. McKay could not restrain himself from roaring in laughter at the site of us. He shooed us all back to the gym where he met us and gave us all several token licks with his legendary Board of Education. The next day, we were all back at the swimming hole again. It was all a game.
That was the Wayne McKay I knew during the years I attended school at Ernest Ward from the 7th to the 12th grade. He often scolded his students for misbehavior between bouts of uncontrollable laughter, for he seemed to understand and expect that kids will be kids and that much of what they do is not only inevitable, but a necessary part of growing up. Not only did he understand the nature of young people, but he thoroughly enjoyed them and took great delight in being a part of their lives.
I have heard it said by more than one pundit that we all may find happiness by doing every day that which makes us happy. Throughout his long career as a school teacher, Wayne McKay surely found a large part of his personal happiness in his work environment. He loved what he did for a living. He loved young people. He loved being around them and he loved being a part of their growing up years. And because of that, his students loved him back. Students always clamored to be in his classroom.
I was first introduced to Wayne McKay in 1959, when I was a part of his 7th Grade Boys Home Room class, and also took a math class under him that year. He was already a school legend even then. I will never lose the mental vision of him sitting at his desk with his feet on his desk, his board in his hand and one classroom miscreant or another standing beside him waiting to be paddled. He would draw back the board and hit the wall behind him to fake his victim off, causing the boy to jump forward, then pop him a lick as he straightened up. Then he would rear back and laugh. He was always an unusually handsome man with a tanned, chiseled face, which was a window right through to his kind and mischievously boyish heart.
I can still see him during baseball season (he loved baseball) sitting in the open doors of the old gym playing checkers with his shirt off while listening to the World Series on the radio. I can still see him sauntering down the old school hallways, throwing his legs out in front of him in his uniquely recognizable gait, in his blue and gold school jacket, with his board in his right hand, bellowing good-naturedly at tardy students to hurry along to their classes, often reaching out to swat one or another on the seat. I can still see him during the summer months when school was out, walking around Atmore in his white T-shirt and shorts and baseball cap, waving and hollering greetings to everyone he met. He was always tanned and healthy-looking.
Not long before he retired from teaching, Mr. McKay was struck with a debilitating illness, which in the ensuing years robbed him of all mobility. I saw him a few times through the years and his physical deterioration grew rapidly more obvious as he first resorted to using a cane to walk, then a wheelchair, and finally became totally paralyzed and confined to his home. Recently, I accompanied another old friend and former teacher, Mr. John Padgett, to Mr. McKay's home to pay him a visit. Having heard that his physically condition had deteriorated to dire circumstances, I felt reluctant to make that visit, for I wanted to remember Mr. McKay as I had known him. As so often happens when one exercises even a modicum of fortitude, I was greatly rewarded for my visit, for not only was I not brought low by it, but I was inspired and lifted up in a way that I could not afterwards explain, for Mr. McKay's keen, energetic and cheerful mind has remained unchanged by his illness and I spent two wonderful hours visiting with him and his beloved wife, Nellie, also a former teacher of mine, and who has also been physically debilitated by illness. Not once during my visit with these two marvelous human beings did either complain or even remark about their misfortunes. Mr. McKay delighted in sharing story after story of his many experiences with his former students going many years back and even up until the end of his career. He often giggled and roared in laughter as he told of the youthful antics of some of his favorite student characters. I believe Wayne McKay's love for what he spent his life doing made him truly happy, a happiness which persevered even through his years of daunting adversity.
Wayne McKay died last week at the age of 79. He will be missed and fondly remembered by his, many, many friends and family who loved him, not the least of which will be hundreds of former students whose mental vision of the inimitable country school teacher is perfected in the image of Mr. Wayne McKay. He was a magnificent human being!

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