ST. PETERSBURG — Books have grown in this home like wild vegetation. They line two living room walls and fill two studies, and have intruded to various degrees in three bedrooms.
Most of the books and journals belonged to William McKee, a retired history professor who died Monday at age 79, of lymphoma. Dr. McKee taught at several colleges, including Princeton University, but preferred liberal arts and retired after 26 years at Eckerd College.
Joan McKee, 77, plucked a book at random from a top shelf. History of the Crusades. "I don't know what we're going to do with all of them," she said.
They met in the 1957 at Union Theological Seminary, where she was a student and he was doing graduate research.
They were both shy, but he liked to talk. Ask him a question, and he would answer it thoroughly. "I had to be sure I was ready to listen for the next 15 minutes," she said.
Dr. McKee studied with famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose politically charged "social gospel" would shape his thinking. Niebuhr believed that religion should make people want to correct injustice. Notes for a book about this movement lie in file boxes in Dr. McKee's study.
One of Dr. McKee's most personal causes was Lakeview Presbyterian Church, considered a forerunner for integrated churches in St. Petersburg. At the church's 50th anniversary celebration, Dr. McKee produced a 21-page history, which included the sizable exodus of white members in the 1960s.
Dr. McKee also excelled at American history, a subject on which "no one could beat him," according to retired history professor William Wilbur of Eckerd. "Unlike many historians, he was very concerned and interested in bringing to the attention of people who were studying the role of religion in American history."
He expressed opinions forcefully, his face reddening slightly as he spoke in perfectly constructed sentences. A brother-in-law once took such offense to Dr. McKee's comments about Republicans that he broke off contact for three years.
His intellect did not extend to mechanics. He once tore a up stretch of his back yard trying to fix a leaking faucet.
A television with rabbit ear antennas (no cable) sits mostly dark in the McKee living room. Dr. McKee had all of Charlie Chaplain's movies on DVD, and watched them on the days his cancer loomed large.
The disease forced him to cut back on teaching four groups of adult students. He never finished his history of the social gospel.
Six weeks before he died, Dr. McKee finished leading a course for retirees, on the Cold War.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.