January 23, 2003
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Jim McKee, former chief of police, remembered for community service

Friends and colleagues of Jim McKee, who died last week, remembered the former police chief for his gentleness, his friendship, his humor and the way he treated people.

In interview after interview, they recalled with respect and admiration his 36 years of service with the Yellow Springs Police Department and his many years of community service to this village. They called him a role model, a mentor, a good cop. They talked about how his door was always open for everyone.

Bruce Rickenbach, a former Village manager, said, “If I had to describe the ideal, quintessential police chief, Jim McKee is it.”

Ann Burden, who worked for McKee in the Police Department, called her former boss a gentleman and “a devoted family man.”

His friend Paul Richardson called McKee “the big brother I never had.”

Former police officer Pete Banner said, “I learned more about life from Jim McKee than I did about the Police Department.”

Greene County Deputy Sheriff John Martin saluting as the funeral procession for Jim McKee drove by at the intersection of Dayton and Limestone streets, Thursday, Jan. 23.

Everyone seemed to know McKee and McKee seemed to know everyone. “Jim never met a stranger,” his friend Paul Ford said.

McKee died Saturday evening, Jan. 18, at his Yellow Springs home, surrounded by his family. He suffered recently from congestive heart failure.

Richardson said that, as they grew older, he and McKee often discussed the aging process. “He was always grateful for seeing another day,” Richardson said.

McKee came to Yellow Springs right after graduating from Springfield High School. He worked odd jobs, selling bread door-to-door for a Springfield bakery, doing maintenance work at Mills Lawn, and working as a shoe cobbler at Jazz Johnson’s shoe repair shop in Yellow Springs and at a store in Springfield.

He eventually married Naomi Adams, a native villager, whom he called in 1993 his “first love.”

“I met her and that was it,” he said.

Different approach to the job

In 1957, McKee got a job as a police officer in town, one of only three officers, including the chief, on the force at the time. Two years later, he was named the chief of police, a position he held for 34 years until he retired in March 1993.

In between, McKee led a long and distinguished career. He was the first black to hold the position of police chief in a predominantly white community.

He instituted a philosophy of community policing before the term came into vogue in departments around the country. Community policing was just how McKee did police work, said several of his former colleagues. McKee had a philosophy of justice, without prejudice, with respect, said John Winks, whom McKee hired in 1974.

In a 1993 article in the News, published before he retired, McKee said: “There’s a heightened awareness here. It’s allowed me to work without arresting everyone. That kind of police work has always been supported and encouraged here.”

Banner said that McKee “didn’t measure things in black and white,” and tried to give local youth who had gotten into trouble a second chance. For instance, instead of sending young people to juvenile court in Xenia, the department tried to deal with problems locally, Banner said.

McKee may have faced his greatest challenges in the 1960s, when civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations occurred regularly throughout town. The biggest of these events took place on March 14, 1964, during a massive demonstration to protest local barber Lewis Gegner’s refusal to cut the hair of African Americans.

The day before the demonstration, the Village was granted a court order limiting the number of picketers in an effort “to ease tension,” McKee said in a 1998 interview with Yellow Springs High School students as part of a video documentary on the civil rights movement in town. “It turned out to be the worst thing that ever happened,” he said.

Hundreds of people showed up to demonstrate in front of Gegner’s Xenia Avenue barbershop. When law enforcement officials tried to enforce the court order, the demonstrators refused to leave. The police and sheriff deputies moved in and arrested 108 people. “No one was prepared to deal with the situation we had here. No one,” McKee said.

Later that day, McKee said, Gegner told Village officials he was closing the barbershop.

In several interviews McKee discussed how difficult that situation was for him. In the interview with YSHS students, McKee said he was “fully aware” that the demonstrators were trying to bring attention to a serious problem. “I had feelings and sympathy for what was going on, but also I was sworn to uphold the law at the same time,” he said.

In 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, downtown Yellow Springs again was the scene of a large demonstration. Hoping to avoid a confrontation like the one four years earlier, McKee took a different approach. The chief allowed the demonstration to proceed and had traffic rerouted. In a 1980 profile in the News, McKee said, “We didn’t try to stop the demonstration, we just tried to control it. I had learned the hard way, but I learned.”

Another significant moment in McKee’s career occurred in June 1965, when King came to Yellow Springs to deliver the commencement address at Antioch’s graduation ceremony. The Village Police Department had to provide security for King.

McKee picked up King and his family, including his wife, Coretta, who attended Antioch, at the airport. “Just to be in his presence, to be in the same vehicle with him, it was just a feeling of joy,” McKee said in 1998.

In the 1993 article, McKee called meeting King the “high point” of his career.

His door was always open

But demonstrations and providing security for civil rights leaders are not the norm for the Yellow Springs Police Department. McKee’s tenure as police chief was relatively peaceful. He never struck anyone and had never been struck on the job. He never had to use his gun.

Rickenbach said that McKee “could defuse a situation in a peaceful kind of way,” which the former manager attributed to McKee’s gentleness. While police officers, including McKee, have to be strong, Rickenbach said that McKee “didn’t have to be macho. He could take control of a situation in his gentle way.”

McKee also believed that the Police Department needed community support to be successful, said Winks, who worked for the squad for 25 years until 1999. “You can’t do it on your own,” he said.

“Jim McKee understood the community; he knew it deeply, personally, intimately,” said former News editor Don Wallis. “I think he saw his life’s work as serving the needs of people, helping them and protecting them. Sometimes he had to protect them from themselves. He had empathy for the person who was upset, who was in trouble, who needed help. Instinctively he would help them.”

A number of people interviewed for this article said they were impressed with how McKee worked with the public, with the way he treated people and how his door was always open.

The current police chief, Jim Miller, who took over about nine months after McKee retired, said that he is impressed with officers who are cordial and “approachable.” McKee was the “epitome of that,” Miller said. “No problem was too big, no problem was too small,” he said.

Ann Burden, who worked for McKee for 27 years, said McKee would always be there for anyone who needed help. She credited McKee for giving her the skills and confidence to become the director of the 911 dispatch center in Xenia. “The things I learned from Chief enabled me to do that job,” she said.

Wallis called McKee a counselor and “trusted advisor.” “I can’t count the number of people who have told me over the years about how Jim McKee helped them when they were in a bad time in their life, how he helped them get through it — and how much they had learned from him about life,” Wallis said. “They were grateful. And as they went on with their lives, they felt a duty to help others, as he had helped them. That is remarkable, beautiful, true community service.”

Ford said that McKee liked being with people. “His leadership qualities were not forceful, they just came naturally,” he said.

A community leader

McKee was much more than the chief of police. He was a longtime member of the First Baptist Church, where he served on the bylaws and constitution committee and the Benevolent Committee, which helps people in need. He also sang in the Men’s Choir.

He was an avid collector of clocks. He loved to work with computers. He was jovial, Ford said. Richardson said that he and McKee would talk “about all kinds of things,” from religion to lawnmowers to cars.

Winks said that McKee represented the best of Yellow Springs. Rickenbach said that McKee helped influence his decision to attend Antioch College, when he saw McKee on TV giving an interview about the Gegner demonstration. Watching the chief on television, Rickenbach said, “I thought, here’s a person I’d like to be.”

In 1994, McKee founded the Yellow Springs Men’s Group. He was also involved in the development of Leadership Yellow Springs and was a member of the Community Foundation board.

Ford said that for McKee the Men’s Group was an “extension of his desire to help people.”

“He wanted Yellow Springs to live up to its reputation as a very liberal, fair community,” Ford said.

Rickenbach said that McKee “saw a need for folks to have a way of coming together and talking about their mutual interests in the village.”

Richardson, the Men’s Group secretary, credited McKee with keeping the group together in the beginning. He would call those members who did not have e-mail and make sure they had a ride to the group’s meetings, Richardson said.

Two years ago, the Men’s Group started the James A. McKee Scholarship fund, which is awarded to local high school students. “He was proud of it and he was humble about it being in his name,” Ford said.

Richardson said that McKee was most proud of the McKee Scholarship because “it provided an opportunity for young people.” McKee was “always helping young people,” Richardson said. “He is and was a fantastic role model.”

In the 1998 YSHS interview, McKee seemed to address the students conducting the interview, and all the youth he helped, when he said: “My proudest moment was preventing things from happening, saving those who I could save.”


—Robert Mihalek