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Ferndale farmer Don McKay was ‘pillar’ of community, friends, family say

Don McKay waves from one of his antique tractors in an undated photo. The longtime Ferndale resident died Monday, July 4, 2016, while preparing to display one of his antique tractors in a parade for Blaine’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration.
Don McKay waves from one of his antique tractors in an undated photo. The longtime Ferndale resident died Monday, July 4, 2016, while preparing to display one of his antique tractors in a parade for Blaine’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration. McKay family

The family and friends of longtime local farmer Don McKay say he was an energetic man who loved his community and was quick to lend a hand to anyone.

McKay was unloading one of his antique tractors in preparation for a parade during Blaine’s Old Fashioned Fourth of July Celebration on Monday morning when the tractor rolled over him. He died from the injuries later that day at St. Joseph hospital. He was 74 years old.

His immediate family includes his wife, Charleen, son Bruce McKay and daughter Karen McKay Bevers, and four grandchildren. Don McKay also has a twin brother, Ron, and a sister, Kathy Morgan.

“We don’t want our dad’s legacy to be the guy from the parade,” Bruce McKay said Wednesday, July 7.

Don McKay was among the third generation of his family to grow up and live in the Ferndale area, which is now home to six generations of McKays, Bruce McKay and Bevers said.

The family operated a dairy farm off Paradise Road beginning in the 1940s. Don McKay was born in Bellingham in 1941. He never took a day off, Bevers said, and the farm was milking 1,200 cows a day at its peak.

Over the years, the family’s farm – complete with its own outdoor swimming pool – became a community gathering place, Bevers said. Don McKay also made it a second home for teenagers in the area going through hard times, she said.

Tragedy shook the family in 1992 with the death of Don and Charleen’s son Keith, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. Just more than a decade later, hard times led the family to sell the farm around 2003.

He took the energy he had from working hard his whole life and just redirected it.

Bruce McKay, Don McKay’s son

The sale left Don McKay restless, and it wasn’t long before he found work elsewhere. He briefly drove a shuttle for Bellair Charters & Airporter – a job he enjoyed, Bevers said, because it allowed him to talk to people.

“The other thing about my dad is that he was a very inquisitive man,” she said. “He loved to learn, and when he got to know people, he wanted to know all about them.”

McKay’s interest in everything later led him to take a job at American Canadian Fisheries, where he could stay busy learning about fish farming. A jack-of-all-trades, McKay started out as a part-time truck driver but ended up doing a little bit of everything, Bevers said, including fixing the fishery’s equipment and tending to a corn patch the company grew for a local food bank.

McKay’s high energy meant work wasn’t over when he went home for the day. He often worked into the night tending to his vegetable garden and finding any excuse to mow his lawn – or to drop by friends’ houses unexpectedly and mow theirs.

When McKay’s kids would ask when he planned on taking vacation, he balked at the idea.

“He’d say, ‘I have vacations every weekend,’ ” Bevers said.

He also owned four antique John Deere tractors – including one his father bought new in the early ’40s – and was active in two area tractor clubs. There wasn’t a parade in Whatcom or Skagit county in the last six or seven years that Don McKay wasn’t in, Bruce McKay said.

He was also an active member of United Church of Ferndale and in local conservative groups. He planned to pull a tea party float on the day of the accident, Bevers said.

“He took the energy he had from working hard his whole life and just redirected it,” Bruce McKay said, adding that his father often worked 100 hours a week when he had the farm. “Unless you were a farmer, it’s hard to explain why or how you worked.”

McKay often took it upon himself to reach out to people in the community, whether he knew them or not, in their times of need, particularly those who had lost loved ones and especially those who lost children, just as he had.

Kristi Harting, a lifelong family friend, said Don McKay was the first person to knock on her door after her father died in 2000.

“He knew what it was like and could offer a listening ear, and it really means a lot to people to talk to somebody who’s been there,” she said. “I just think he felt that it was his gift.”

McKay also long supported Ferndale High School sports teams, attending football and basketball games even though none of his children had enrolled there in nearly 20 years. Charleen McKay worked as a para-educator for the district for more than 18 years.

In 1998, the high school created the Keith McKay Natural Resources Center, in honor of his late son, where students get hands-on education in aquaculture.

“Don was a pillar of our community,” said Tammy Bengen, Ferndale Schools spokeswoman. “He and Charleen were always interested in hearing about and supporting the education of our community’s children. We are greatly missing Don.”

There was at least one witness to the Fourth of July accident, but it’s still unclear how McKay fell before the tractor rolled over him, Bevers said. The family tries not to wonder about the details anymore, she said; it’s too painful.

Bevers agreed with Bruce McKay that the accident shouldn’t be how their father is remembered.

“That can’t be his legacy,” she said. “It needs to be the man he was.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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