Great men are among us - you do not need to look for them among celebrities.
That's what one of Hugh Michael McKenna's friends told his family after the longtime community volunteer, devoted father and husband, committed naturalist and fervent writer died May 21 at the age of 82.
McKenna was born April 1, 1922 in Astoria and lived in Seaside for most of his life. He attended Seaside schools, and for a time was one of the fastest high school milers in Oregon. He was U.S. Navy veteran of the Pacific Theater in World War II and worked for 40 years for Pacific Power in Seaside as a meter technician. McKenna married Jane Larfield and the couple had four children - Hugh, Leo, Daniel and Maureen.
He spent more than three decades on the Seaside Volunteer Fire Department, becoming the first volunteer firefighter in the United States to attend the National Fire Academy in Maryland. McKenna was named Fireman of the Year in 1976. He retired from the department as a captain and training officer.
During his years of service, McKenna witnessed the 1962 Seaside Labor Day Riot, as well as numerous events that transformed his community. Other civic service included membership on the Seaside City Council, Seaside Public Library Board, Union Health District Board for the Providence Seaside Hospital and the Sunset Empire Transportation District Board. McKenna worked with Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and found time to play his bagpipes with the Clatsop Scottish Pipe Band, then in the Portland Scottish band.
"I added it all up," McKenna's oldest son, Hugh McKenna, said at his father's memorial service. "He spent 109 years serving his community. Not bad for only being 82."
Religion was important to McKenna. He was an active member of the Our Lady of Victory Catholic Parish, while he also enjoyed riding his beach bicycle to weekly meetings of an ecumenical discussion group. He was "very Catholic," but accepted all other religions, his family says.
McKenna was the type of person who liked to push the stoplight at Broadway and 12th Avenue, just to have tourists stop their cars. His wit was dry. The McKenna family motto, McKenna used to tell people, was "Don't follow me, I'm lost." He loved everything Irish, and learned enough of the language to make jokes. He had business cards printed with an old Irish font showing McKenna's name in Irish - Aodh Mac Chionnath - recalls Irish friend John Considine.
Jane Larfield and Hugh McKenna met when his parents rented a house on Holiday from her parents. Her older brother, John, would tease McKenna. "But we got to be good friends," Jane McKenna says. He took a job at a grocery store and she worked at a bakery. They would meet for lunch at Holladay Drugs and read Esquire magazine, considered to be a bit racy for the times.
"Our mothers would have had fits if they had known this," Jane McKenna says, with a laugh. She characterizes them as good friends at that point, but when Hugh McKenna entered the Navy in 1943, he wrote from Alaska: "There are no palm trees or blondes. Would you please bring a palm tree?" He asked Jane to perfume her letters. She did.
McKenna proposed on Dec. 30, 1944, as the couple watched the waves crash onto the Seaside beach. They sat in Jane's brother's black Buick coupe. Jane asked him to await her answer on New Year's Eve. She said yes, and agreed to wait while he finished his service tour. He sent her an engagement ring by the mail. The couple married at Our Lady of Victory on Jan. 12, 1946.
Hugh McKenna, front, and his oldest son, Hugh, take a canoe trip on Smith Lake on Clatsop Plains.McKenna took a job with Pacific Power as a meter technician, installing and calibrating meters. Pacific Power offered him management positions elsewhere, but the family didn't want to move.
The younger Hugh McKenna recalls his relationship with his dad deepening over the years. "He and I became great friends as we aged," he says, remembering hours spent as a youngster, listening to his father read aloud. One of McKenna's favorite novels was "Wind in the Willows." The older McKenna also liked "The Odyssey," "The Iliad" and the author P.G.. Wodehouse. Other interests included railroads and sailing ships, naval history, astronomy, firefighting and emergency medicine, flowers, birds and Ireland.
McKenna wrote a detailed account of the 1962 Seaside Labor Day Riot. As a fire department volunteer, he was called to help maintain order. McKenna found himself at the entrance to the Times Theatre, confronting a "big fella" a good deal taller. McKenna had been injured previously, his face bloodied, and the "big fella" also had been attacked by rioters. A photographer captured McKenna holding the man up against a wall, both bleeding, awaiting the arrival of the police. That photo would get picked up by media worldwide.
As it turned out, McKenna was actually protecting the other man from the rioters.
McKenna has produced writings on the war in the Pacific, others about his career in the utility industry and a third set relating to explorations in Ireland. Copies of his work are in the Seaside Public Library.
As the couple's children grew and left home, the McKennas started traveling. They made their first trip to Ireland in the 1970s, and followed up with numerous other excursions there - a total of 21 trips for Jane and 26 for McKenna.
Their destination often was the town of Fanore, a little place of 200 people in County Clare on the Galway Coast. The McKennas took up residence each year or so at the Admiral's Rest Bed and Breakfast, for months at a time. The owner, John MacNamara, even named one room after Jane.
A major attraction of Fanore is its proximity to the Burren, a geographically unique and significant region of surface limestone in counties Clare and Galway. It's not uncommon to find a tropical orchid growing next to an alpine plant in the Burren. It is this botanical bounty, and the warmth of the Irish people, that drew the McKennas back year after year. McKenna made several archeological finds relating to Stone Age and Bronze Age burial sites, and helped to discover rare wildflowers not previously known in that part of Ireland.
John Considine became acquainted with McKenna through their common love of the Burren. Considine continues to be involved with the Burren Wildlife Symposium, an annual weekend dedicated to archeological tours, wildlife watching and appreciation of the Burren. A lecture will be held at this year's event in May, in honor of McKenna.
"He was not all academic - he enjoyed a glass of Scotch now and then," Considine wrote in a tribute to McKenna. "He was a meticulous man in everything he did - his writing was minute and perfectly formed, his record-keeping was faultless, and his memory was razor-sharp ... He wore his great knowledge and advanced years very lightly, and was a wonderful companion."
Always the journal keeper, McKenna noted in his diary in early May last year that he was in some pain, feeling as if "someone had hit me with a baseball bat in the back." On the other hand, he also wrote "I've lived through a major war, three riots and (have) been married 58 years. What else can worry me?"
A few days later he went to Portland's St. Vincent Hospital after sustaining what would later be determined to be a heart attack. On May 21, he finished his breakfast, turned to his P.G. Wodehouse book and died peacefully. "The last words he said to me was 'I love you,'" says Jane. The couple had been married 58 years, four months and nine days.
Condolences poured in from Australia and Italy, Switzerland and Germany, and, of course, Ireland. Roberto from Venice wrote the family: "As an enthusiastic reader of Hugh's memoirs and anecdotes, (I have) come to the reassuring conclusion that great men are among us, you do not need to look for them among celebrities."
Burton Lowe, who had been the Seaside city manager from 1970 to 1982, said he could always count on McKenna. "Your dad and I worked together on many projects, some popular, some not, but he could be counted on for help and support for anything at anytime," Lowe wrote. Childhood friend Gilbert Gordon, who recalled acing Latin tests with McKenna in high school: "Hugh's death is an earthquake."
McKenna's funeral services reflected his life. An Irish flag draped his casket. At McKenna's request, he was dressed in his firefighter's full-dress uniform. The Seaside Fire Department held a full parade to Evergreen Cemetery, blocking traffic. Always the wit, "Dad would have loved that," says daughter-in-law Andrea Kennet. "There were huge American flags and a bagpiper playing. I don't think he had any idea of how loved and respected he was in the community."