From IBM to WJ: a volunteer keeper of history

Ever wonder who fills all the historical glass displays in WJ’s hallways? Meet archivist Ron McKee, a jovial 86-year-old who has volunteered at the school for nearly 30 years.

While McKee became a volunteer at WJ in 1991, he didn’t fall into the semi-formal position of WJ Archivist until 2007, shortly before the school celebrated its 50th anniversary.

The commemoration led the principal at the time, Dr. Christopher Garran, to find someone to help organize the school’s history. He chose McKee, who said it was not an easy task.

“It took me about a year to find the stuff,” McKee said.

McKee tracked down one former vice principal who helped compile the original records.

“We would call him [at his home on the Eastern Shore] and then he would say, ‘I don’t know where [they are].’”
One of the key possessions in the WJ collection was a set of binders, full of information about the life, times and baseball career of Walter Johnson, the legendary Washington Senators pitcher whose name our school bears.

“One of the things that happened with those books of Walter Johnson’s was that they were sitting in a place that got flooded. The boxes got wet and they threw them away without letting us know they were doing it,” McKee said.

McKee wishes that he got the chance to look at the boxes before they were tossed. He says that while the boxes may have been ruined, the binders could have been saved.

Only eight of the original 20-odd books remain today.

Most of the archive is documents, detailing the history of the school. There are books for nearly every year, filled to the brim with notable school and local events.

McKee is also responsible for the only complete set of WJ yearbooks, going all the way back to 1956.
Physics teacher Bill Morris has known McKee for decades.

“He’s a wonderful person, very effervescent too,” Morris said.

“The kids in the school don’t understand the importance of the work he’s doing [on the archives]. 20 years from now they’ll understand the importance, but now they don’t really,” Morris said.

When Morris was introduced to McKee nearly 30 years ago, it was by a parent who pointed him out as “the guy who’s in the stands at all the games.”

McKee worked for IBM for 30 years as a publisher and developer before retiring in 1991. McKee’s offices were in the business park across the street from WJ, so he often cut through the school campus on his way to work from his nearby home.

“I walked right through Walter Johnson every day. You can’t do that anymore. But I walked through every day as a shortcut and as I’d be going home in the evening because I’d usually work overtime. My wife died in ‘83. So I would work late, walk home and walk through here, where I would hear the whistle blowing in the gym,” McKee said.
One day, McKee told himself that he had to find out what those games were all about. The first couple of times he went into the gym, the games were girls basketball. At the time, the WJ girls’ team was coached by Michael “Obie” O’Brien, a special education teacher.

“I went to a game, I went to another game, and I went to two, three, four games. [O’Brien] would see me in the stands. Back in those days, nobody went to see the girls’ games except the parents, and he knew all the parents. He was a coach that thought other coaches would spy on him and he thought I was a spy, so he asked his girlfriend, who later became his wife, to go and sit next to me and engage me in conversation to figure out what I was doing there,” McKee recalled.

Not too long after, McKee was one of the regulars, going out for “the beers” after the games with the coaching staff. After he retired, volunteering at Walter Johnson became natural.

“I walked over here, it was summertime, so I had to talk to someone who was in 12-month employ, and I said do you think they use volunteers. They told me to come back in the fall and talk to the lady in the media center. I worked for them for three years or something like that,” McKee said.

During those three years, the media center housed all six of the school’s computers, which stood alone, not attached to any outside network. This was a perfect fit for McKee.

“I maintained those because I knew how to do it and the kids loved to go ahead and screw them up. They were easy to screw up — there were no things like passwords,” McKee said.

A few years later, Montgomery County launched a network for all of its schools.

“I worked for the first IT person when they brought in the network. I didn’t do the troubleshooting, I worked with the teachers. The teachers were the hardest people to deal with because they weren’t too excited about [the computers],” McKee said.

McKee worked with the IT staff, going to teachers’ classrooms and helping them when they encountered difficulties with the technology. McKee’s first IT job ended when his supervisor left after three years. The next job he had lasted 13 years, in the midst of the long term WJ renovation.

“That was a period where we had 40 some-odd trailers that we used on the outside of the school and every summer we had to move machines in and put them in new classrooms that were forming inside and had to move others out,” McKee said.

The end of that stretch aligned with WJ’s then-upcoming 50-year anniversary celebration and McKee’s transition to archivist.

McKee is no longer a daily volunteer. He comes by the school when he can, generally working on organizing and filing until the evening.

The archive room, tucked away among department offices, is packed from floor to ceiling with documents and school relics. One of the more interesting items in the archive is a flag, which was flown on the US Capitol, and presented to WJ upon the opening of the new sports stadium. However, there was one slight problem.

The plaque was missing a letter. It was made out to “Water” Johnson High School.

“I don’t think they even looked at it,” McKee said about the misspelling.

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