When he retires in January, Eugene McKay will have spent 49 1/2 years at Arkansas State University-Beebe. McKay said he wanted to become a teacher to help people, and as chancellor at ASU-Beebe, he finds himself giving back to the farming industry that he was raised in, but he doesn’t want credit for the school’s success.
He said he’s lucky to have had a good team around him. McKay applied for the school to join with John Deere’s dealer technician program. Now ASU’s program is second-largest among those in the U.S. and Canada.
Hard work and persistence are pillars in McKay’s life. Those attributes form a foundation laid by his time working the cotton fields in his birthplace of Amagon as he helped his father on the sharecropping farm where McKay grew up.
“Choppin’ cotton in the July sun is an experience everyone should have a little of, but not too much,” McKay said.
“It teaches you to appreciate a lot of other things. I guess what I learned from that was to work hard and endure and set goals. I had lots of goals. Get to the end of this row, where the water bucket is. Make it around to where that tree is. Get under the shade a few minutes. I would say I learned to work hard, and I learned to endure,” he said.
“We got up and milked the cows before daylight,” McKay said. “Then we worked daylight till dark. We’d go out and chop cotton while mama was makin’ breakfast and go back and chop some more. We just did that. It was what everyone lived in. We didn’t realize there were other options.”
When the family had paid its debts, they left the farm for good, moving to Weona, Charlotte and then Bradford, where McKay graduated from high school. While he was still in school, a recruiter from Lyon College, then Arkansas College, offered to help him raise money to attend the school. She got him a job working 30 hours a week at the college to pay for his tuition.
When it came time to pick a major, McKay chose English. He said he has always been an avid reader.
“In high school, English had always been easy for me,” McKay said. “I got in it, and I love it. It was the right thing for me. My wife also got a Ph. D. in English, so we read a lot of boring books that no one else would read.”
After graduating from Lyon College with a bachelor’s degree, he got a job at ASU-Beebe, and one of the conditions of his employment was that he had to earn a master’s degree. So he completed a master’s degree in English at the University of Arkansas. In the early ’70s, he and his wife went to the University of Mississippi and both completed doctorates in English.
McKay’s wife, Judy McKay, taught English at ASU-Beebe for 26 years. She died of breast cancer in 2013. A tree was planted in her honor near the building McKay works in, and he set up a scholarship in her name last year. The first recipient of the award, Kaitlin Buchan, plans to become a teacher.
“She spent her life in the learning center and working here as a teacher,” McKay said of his wife. “I thought, ‘Let her continue to help people.’ A young lady from Jacksonville is the first recipient. She’s going to be an elementary school teacher. I thought Judy would have been happy about that.”
McKay said teaching is something he and his wife both enjoyed, and they never wanted administrative roles. McKay was eventually thrust into a big one as vice chancellor of student affairs. Then in 1994, he was named chancellor of ASU-Beebe after Chancellor William H. Owen Jr. died unexpectedly.
“If you love your job, you don’t ever have to work,” McKay said. “I’ve been fortunate that I always have seen my work and my mission in life as one and the same because I get an opportunity to help a lot of people, do things that I think makes life better for other people, and that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I, at one time, wanted to be a Methodist minister, but I couldn’t sing. So I decided that was probably not the best option for me.”
As chancellor at ASU-Beebe, one of the first things McKay implemented was a partnership with John Deere to create a school devoted to John Deere maintenance education on campus. Although the school was small and required a lot of hard work from McKay, it has blossomed into the second-largest such program in the U.S. and Canada.
“One day Barry Farris, who is now my vice chancellor for the Searcy campus — he was an ag teacher then — came in and said, ‘Would you like to have a John Deere program?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d certainly be interested in talking about it.’”
The two began talking with John Deere representatives to assess what the program would entail. State Rep. David Choate worked with the Arkansas Legislature to garner $135,000 to start the program. More money came from the office of then Gov. Jim Guy Tucker.
During the reading of a proposal for funding, McKay was stopped by the head of the committee to discuss the John Deere program. Before McKay was allowed to read the rest of the proposal, the committee agreed to grant the funding.
McKay was married to his wife for 47 years, and they had three boys. Now, McKay has 11 grandchildren that he will spend more time with in retirement. He said that when his children were young, they said, “My parents are doctors, but not the ones that can help you.” McKay tends to believe he and his wife helped a lot of people, whether or not they cared for the sick.
Things seem to have come full circle for McKay — from that 10-year-old boy who worked on a cotton farm to the man who helped bring a John Deere repair program to Beebe.
“Yeah, we had tractors, but I can’t even start one of these,” McKay said, pointing at tractors in the John Deere Agriculture Technology Program building.