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Remembering Mr. McKay: One Science Teacher's Life Ripples Across His Students

Melody Marshall
The late Mike McKay, seen here with his students.

“Robert Michael McKay, 72, of Bloomington, passed away Feb. 7, 2017, at his home.”

That’s how Mike McKay’s obituary begins. The obit’s 211 words are lovingly written, but they only scratch the surface of a life that’s still being measured even today, months after his death.

McKay taught science for 33 years, most of it at Glenn Elementary School in Normal. He was a celebrity there, known for his infamous “Bone Study” anatomy project for sixth-graders, his awesome names for class pets, and for just generally making science fun to learn.

“He made an unforgettable lasting impression on all of his students,” said Carrie Currie of Bloomington, one of McKay’s former students, who now works at State Farm.

Credit Courtesy / Melody Marshall
Melody Marshall
Mr. McKay was well-known for his classroom animals.

Currie and more than 140 other former students reconnected on Facebook this year after learning about Mr. McKay’s passing. They’ve shared tons of McKay photos and stories.

His classroom animals and other science tools were almost as famous as McKay himself. There was Stevie Wonder, the blind guinea pig. The rainbow boa Roy G. Biv (like RGB). Tonya the python. And a full-size skeleton named George. It was a big deal when McKay let you take one of the pets home for break. (He was probably just happy to get someone else to pitch in.)

Currie channeled McKay when she finally let her own daughter buy a guinea pig. Currie and her sisters loved McKay. Their dad wasn’t around much, so they thought of him as a father figure.

“We always believed he took a special interest in us. I didn’t realize until after (he died) that he was that person to all of us,” Currie said. “I always just wanted to make him proud.”

Infamous Bone Study

McKay was born in Fairbury. His mother was a teacher, so it was in his veins. He was an extremely dedicated teacher, according to his sister, Melody Marshall, who now lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Yet she was surprised to see so many students step forward after his death to express how much he’d done to spark their passion for science.

Credit Dan Gordon / Facebook
Dan Gordon‎ shared this page from his Bone Study coloring book on the "Remembering Mr. McKay" Facebook group.

McKay’s Bone Study stays with former students to this day.

Like so many, Tiffany Yatsko spent the summer between fifth and sixth grade coloring in the different bones in the human body, so she’d be ready for McKay’s science class in the fall. McKay apparently copied pages out of a human anatomy textbook and distributed it to students.

“It helped plant the basis for what I did later in life,” said Yatsko, now a clinical nurse coordinator at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “I always loved biology, and I think he played a part in that. I just remember always being excited to go to science class.”

Charles Smittkamp had McKay for science class in the early 1980s. He went on to become a neuroradiologist who now lives in Caseyville, near St. Louis. The bookshelf in his office is split into two sections—one full of reference books, the other filled with personal items.

His Bone Study binder is right in the middle.

“It’s between the two sections for a reason,” Smittkamp said. “It’s got a lot of anatomy in it that I like to look at every once in awhile, and it’s got sentimental value. It’s my first introduction to medicine that Mr. McKay cultivated, and it stuck.”

McKay, who went by Mike, had a life outside the school. But he wasn’t married and never had kids of his own.

“His students were his kids,” said Marshall.

McKay was a car buff. Students remember him pulling up in different cars throughout the years—a Jeep one day, a Volkswagen the next. He was especially proud of his 1977 Monte Carlo, his sister said.

He also volunteered as an emergency medical technician for the McLean County Rescue Squad for more than 20 years, receiving many awards and honors for his service.

He was also a big fan of Australia and loved playing the didgeridoo. He met and became friends with the Australian Aboriginal master didgeridooist, David Hudson.

“I have 12 (didgeridoos) right here in the corner of my bedroom that I brought back (to Florida) that were Mike’s,” Marshall said during a phone interview with GLT.

The students who shared their memories of Mr. McKay on the Facebook group eventually turned their efforts toward a permanent memorial. They raised nearly $2,000 in just a few weeks to buy a bench for the school in McKay’s honor. It was recently installed under a tree that McKay himself planted to honor a student who passed away. The money left over from the bench was donated to the Glenn Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) for nearby landscaping.

Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Gregg Kiesewetter on the McKay bench outside Glenn Elementary School in Normal.

Gregg Kiesewetter, who still lives in Bloomington-Normal, created the Remembering Mr. McKay Facebook group and helped lead the bench effort. He had McKay for science and homeroom in the early 1980s.

Kiesewetter was there this fall for a dedication ceremony for the bench. So were a bunch of current Glenn students—walking the halls of the school long after McKay was gone.

“Very early on, it hit me. It snuck up on me. I got a little bit emotional talking about Mr. McKay. And it kind of surprised me. He really did have a big impact on myself, and my family, and a lot of kids,” he said.

Did Mr. McKay know how these students felt? Did he realize the legacy he had left behind before retiring in the mid-1990s? Did he get how big a deal it was when his former students would run into him at the grocery store, the memories it conjured?

“I just really hope he knew that and that we weren’t too late to let him know,” Kiesewetter said. “You kind of take that for granted. That’s what I was hoping to instill with the kids at the dedication ceremony. They’re young, but hopefully they can grasp onto something they learned from a teacher and be able to pass that on and be able to share a love for something with a teacher.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.