No matter how old I get, Kelly McNary will always be my big brother and little brothers always want to impress their big brothers. Always.Kelly’s journey on this earth recently ended and I’ve been reliving memories that are decades old yet fresh as this morning’s sunrise and as gentle as a spring breeze. During those water-colored memories, I’ve been taking inventory of the lessons he taught me.
Capturing beauty with a camera – I bought my first 35mm Minolta from Kelly in 1982. He taught me the basics of using the manual functions on a camera and how elements like shutter speed, aperture opening, and the film’s ISO rating had to work together to capture a great image. Although our cell phones and modern cameras make capturing stunning images so much easier, back in the days of film cameras, learning how those three things worked together was critical to success. I lived in Idaho at the time and, after purchasing the camera, took a journal and spent the day doing as he taught me, carefully composing, and writing down, those three settings with each shot. After the film came back from being developed into prints, I would compare the photos with my notes. I was so excited to do things the way he taught me. I had a hard time admitting to him that I didn’t load any film in the camera that day.
Commit, then figure it out – That has been one of my guiding leadership principles for the better part of my career and hobbies and I didn’t realize that I actually learned it from my Dad and all three brothers. Most notably, Kelly and my brother, Mike, decided in the late ’70’s to build a house. Neither one of them had any carpentry skill to speak of, but an opportunity came along for them to build a house, so they built a house. As would be the case for the rest of his profession as the best finish carpenter in the region, he lived with the confidence that he could figure anything out once he set his mind to it. My wife, Christine, and I proudly live in a house that Mike and Kelly built.
The artistry of craftsmanship – I learned how to build entire houses from Mike and Kelly and, in that process of building a house, there are various skill sets that make for a quality home. The foundation crew must get the basement square and level, the framers must get the walls plumb and square, but the sheet rockers can cover a multitude of their sins. However, the skill of the final trim and cabinetry requires a level of mastery that is unparalleled. These “finish” carpenters are often called upon to cover the mistakes of others, but they cannot make mistakes, cannot cut corners, and cannot get by with shoddy work. It was in that area that Kelly became an artist, called upon by people who wanted the best, who turned their homes into showcases of elegance and craftsmanship.
Like any carpenter, Kelly wanted to build his own casket but didn’t have room to store it. Upon his passing, his son, Byron, and Mike’s son, Josh, built him a final resting place that captured the essence of Kelly the craftsman and the most elegant casket I have ever seen. Inside was lined with the fabric of Kelly’s favorite team, the KU Jayhawks. Shortly after his passing, the Jayhawks won the National Championship in basketball and all who know Kelly believed he had something to do with their win; he could cheer from heaven as easily as he could his recliner.
Respect for veterans – I was around 9 years old when Kelly and Mike joined the Air Force when the Viet Nam War was still raging. The only context I had about war was that Stanley Calvin, our neighbor and a classmate of Kelly’s, had been killed in action. Stanley’s was the first funeral I ever attended and when the 21-gun salute fired, it’s a wonder I didn’t die from a heart attack. Kelly and Mike signed up shortly after that and, in my 9-year-old mind, I thought when they left for bootcamp they would come back the same way – in a casket. Those were scary times.
One a trip to see Kelly after he got out of bootcamp, he took me on base to the commissary where I bought my first pair of army boots. He managed to give me an old green fatigue with McNary monogrammed on the pocket. Little-boy Rick could not have been prouder of his brother than when he donned that fatigue and laced up those boots. To this day, I still spit-shine my shoes the way Kelly taught me to spit-shine those boots. Both Kelly and Mike often suggested I should have joined the military to correct some of my numerous deficiencies. I declined.
Passing on a tradition of faith – Kelly’s grandson, Austin Boone, was unable to be at Kelly’s service because he is in Florida in college studying to be a minister. However, he wrote a letter about the gift of a Bible that Kelly and his lovely wife, Cindy, had given him and how Kelly taught him to write notes in the margin of the Bible. Kelly learned that from our Dad who filled the margins of his Bible with a variety of notes referencing one passage to another, capturing an important word, or explaining the context.
The love of speed and hot cars– Kelly came home from college one weekend in his ’69 Camaro, one of the hottest cars of the time. He took me on a ride with him and Mike in the front, white leather bucket seats and I perched in the middle of the back seat with my arms resting on the back of the bucket seats (we didn’t do seatbelts back then). When the speedometer crested 90+ mph, I clapped with excitement. I thought this was so newsworthy, that I raced into the house upon returning home and shared this glorious news. Turns out that that was not the kind of news I should have been sharing with our parents, although I learned later that our Dad liked speed and hot cars, too, except he couldn’t afford either. I never got to ride with Mike or Kelly after that day: no room for tattletales!
Kelly left this earth way too soon. He was the last of my three brothers to leave this earth and I’m sure they’re all in heaven swapping stories, racing their hotrods down the golden streets, and catching up with the happenings on earth.
Although I’m left with only the memories, I’m also left the gift of understanding how much he shaped the person I have become. I have resolved to apply the lessons I learned more practically in my everyday life and give him credit.
On his birthday last week, April 21, to honor him, I started the day early in my shop working on a new project I’ve never done before and approaching it with the attention to detail of an artist like Kelly. I’m committing, then figuring it out.I think he’d be pleased, knowing his influence permeates my attitude and approach.
Whether he is here, or in heaven, a little brother always want to impress his older brother. Always.