Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Shirley McKay

A complicated, powerful force who changed lives for the better

TAMPA — In the late 1960s, Shirley McKay packed her husband, her toddler and her dreams into a battered VW bug and headed for San Francisco.

They stayed a couple of years, long enough to fill a photo album with their new friends, guys wearing berets and earth-toned sweaters, playing chess.

"These cool young people, at an amazing time," said her son, Todd McKay. "Trying to figure out who they were and what they were all doing."

Ms. McKay would take many more such trips without specific destinations, because to do it any other way would spoil the fun. Even at home in Tampa, she was always moving on with some next adventure: A new pile of books to read in her townhome. Another round of drinks with girlfriends, undertaken with a zeal that defied her age and eventually her health.

Ms. McKay, a forceful woman who found her calling in human connections, laughter and a generous spirit, died Monday, a result of multiple organ failure, her family said.

She was 69.

Born Shirley Casper in 1944 in Waukeegan, Ill., Ms. McKay moved to Tampa with her family as a child. She graduated from the Academy of the Holy Names. She attended Florida State University, but partied a little too much to be able to stay.

Ms. McKay transferred to the University of South Florida, where she graduated. She married Donald McKay, who became a lawyer after their return from California. They lived in Oldsmar, then Tampa, and had two more sons.

She enjoyed motherhood but felt trapped, her options suddenly foreclosed. Domestic life "sort of chafed her spirit, I think," said Todd McKay, 47.

She drank more.

Her 10-year marriage ended. Ms. McKay fought back — and not just for herself.

Teenagers who had gotten kicked out of their homes, or whose homes were hellacious, could take the spare bedroom until they figured it out. Kids not her own called her "mom" for decades.

Two summers in a row she loaded her three sons, then elementary and high-school age, into a rickety rented motorhome, headed approximately for Maine.

"She was totally fearless about that kind of thing," said Todd McKay, a lawyer. The RVs broke down in the worst places, including a mall and a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike.

A few years later, Ms. McKay went back to USF, this time to get a master's degree in counseling psychology. She stopped drinking during those years, her son said. She worked for a couple of years as a counselor, which suited her honesty and ability to listen.

Outside of work, she could level friends or family with a blunt assessment or make them laugh uncontrollably. "If you were in a situation and something seemed a little off, I could cut my eyes over to my mom and she was already there," her son said.

"Then you felt validated by that: 'Okay, something weird is happening here.' "

She had one serious relationship after marriage, after which she decided she had no need for romantic relationships. Been there, done that.

She read classics by Faulkner and Jane Austen, broken up by hundreds of mysteries.

She drank more.

Her family urged her to see a doctor about increasing circulatory problems. "This was a very headstrong woman," her son said. "You would say, 'Hey, maybe you'd better get that checked out.' And she would just nod her head, 'Okay,' and not do it."

As the word spread last week, teenagers she had rescued decades earlier learned that "Mom is gone." The postwoman who delivered her mail broke down and wept.

And her sons — two lawyers and a commander in the Navy — are remembering the single mother who inspired the best in them, even as she struggled herself. "Without being self-congratulatory, I think we would all ascribe our success to her," her son said.


Shirley Casper McKay

Born: Nov. 6, 1944

Died: March 24, 2014

Survivors: sons, Todd, Matthew and Duncan McKay; brother, Tom Casper; and two granddaughters.

A complicated, powerful force who changed lives for the better 03/29/14 [Last modified: Saturday, March 29, 2014 7:13pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series


    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena


    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack


    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath


    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.