Born in Amagon, on the Cache River, Eugene McKay, 70, grew up chopping and picking cotton by hand. He never thought about going to college, much less becoming a university chancellor.
McKay and his family moved around to other small Arkansas towns before settling in Bradford, where he graduated from high school in 1959.
“My folks were poor people,” McKay, Arkansas State University-Beebe chancellor, said. “Our house burned when I was a senior [in high school], and we had no insurance, so I had no plans to go to college.”
McKay said Yvonne Wilson changed the course of his life completely. Wilson was a recruiter for Lyon College (then Arkansas College), and she came to Bradford High School to speak to the seniors.
“I probably just went to get out of class,” McKay said with a chuckle about going to visit with Wilson. “I’ll never forget how she changed my life. She said, ‘If I can get the money for you, would you go [to college]?’ I never expected to see her again, but two weeks later, she came back.”
McKay said he wasn’t prepared for college and had to study six hours each day, and he worked 30 hours a week in a work study program.
“I grew a beard one semester because I didn’t have the money to buy razor blades,” he said.
Although getting through college was difficult financially and took a lot of work, McKay said he never thought about quitting. Throughout his career, he has carried on the work ethic that got him out of the cotton fields and through college.
“Truly, I have learned what real leadership is by watching Dr. McKay in action,” Stephanie Nichols, assistant chancellor at ASU-Beebe, said. “He is the most ethical, humble and unselfish leader I have ever had the privilege to work with. It is undeniable that the college has prospered tremendously under his helm. He firmly believes in doing the right thing all the time, even when it may not be convenient. He genuinely cares about our faculty, staff and students.”
McKay came to ASU-Beebe in 1966 as a French and English instructor, and he continued his education and spent his summers at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to earn his master’s degree.
While teaching at ASU-Beebe during the Vietnam War, he was also a “dorm daddy,” living at Quawpaw Hall, which will soon be torn down to make way for new buildings.
In 1971, McKay and his wife, Judith, who recently retired from teaching English at the university, took a three-year sabbatical to go to the University of Mississippi to earn their doctorates.
From 1981 through 1987, he was vice chancellor for academic affairs at ASU-Beebe.
“The chancellor and faculty wanted me to do it because they thought I’d stay,” McKay said. “I guess they were right.”
After the chancellor at the time died from a heart attack, McKay filled in for a year in 1994 while the university searched for someone to fill the position. After an extensive search, the permanent job was offered to McKay, he said.
During his 45 years at ASU-Beebe, McKay has seen a lot of changes. The enrollment jumped from around 400 to almost 5,000, and he said that in the past seven years, the enrollment has grown by at least 50 percent.
McKay said the biggest challenge he has faced in his time as chancellor is finances.
“The last two years, our money has been flat,” he said. “Enrollment has grown, but the money we get from the state has declined over the last few years.”
McKay said he is proud of his university and its diversity of programs.
“In 1985, we got the technical institute,” he said. “We have the only two-year John Deere training program in the state and one of 19 in the nation. … We have the only veterinary technology program in the state; it’s nationally accredited.”
Giving the faculty and staff credit for much of the growth of the university, McKay said he believes the “highly qualified faculty and staff ” truly want to help students succeed.
“He doesn’t toot his own horn or magnify his own accomplishments,” Nichols said of McKay. “Instead, he recognizes the accomplishments of others. One thing many people may not know is that he actually has a great sense of humor and is a lot of fun to work with. He is not a micro-manager. He encourages creativity and allows you to try new things. He is continually encouraging us to pursue goals that stretch us and cause us to work harder than before. His philosophy is based on the fact that we can and should be continually improving. He has the kind of passion for the school that makes you want to work harder to share in his great vision for what ASU-Beebe can be.”
ASU-Beebe also has campuses in Heber Springs and Searcy; and at Little Rock Air Force Base.
- jbrosius@ arkansasonline.comup close
getting to know Eugene McKay
Birth date: May 5, 1941
Birthplace: Amagon, Ark., on the Cache River
Biggest influence: Yvonne Wilson - she was the
person who recruited me to go to college. Before I
got back to say “thank you,” she had died.
Something that is always in my pantry: Coffee
- it used to be Coke, but I gave that up; now
coffee is my major vice.
Something most people don’t know about me:
I’m fairly religious, but I don’t wear it on my sleeve.