All Too Soon

Attorney Richard McKee: August 1, 1956-October 20, 1999

OF ALL THE things Dick McKee yearned for in his job as a deputy Pima County attorney, inside baseball was so remote it was not on any list.

And yet, here calls his boss, David Dingeldine with a new assignment. The jovial head and longtime father figure of the County Attorney's civil division, Dingeldine popped the question: "Do you like baseball?"

"I hate it!" McKee answered.

"Great," said Dingeldine, whose northwest-side home was the venue of bimonthly low-stakes poker games McKee enjoyed with colleague Pete Pearman and Deputy County Administrator Martin Willett. "You're my man."

And so it was. Dingeldine handed McKee the stack of letters, offers, counter offers, proposed leases and agreements that made up the delicate, protracted negotiations for the county to land the then-expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox for spring training at Tucson Electric Park.

"Even if he was just handed an assignment, he'd have it done the next day," said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. "He never complained. He was genuinely a nice bright guy. He was the antithesis of what we tend to think of lawyers."

Baseball was not the only curve given to McKee. A top environmental lawyer, he also was called in to help straighten out another complicated mess -- leases at the Avra Valley Airport and the transfer of the airport to Marana.

On environmental issues, McKee was at the center of the county's intense fights to preserve the right to protect the environment, leading efforts to help the county maintain regulatory authority for air quality. His work was crucial to the county's securing a nearly $2.5 million settlement from asbestos manufacturers whose cancer-causing materials laced the county's Administration, Health & Welfare and Legal Services buildings.

Unwaveringly polite, straightforward and positive, McKee, by all accounts, was well toward building a brilliant career in government and environmental law.

But on October 20, about a year after being diagnosed with leukemia, McKee lost a final battle with pneumonia and died in a Seattle hospital following a bone-marrow transplant. He was 43.

Suzanne Kaplan McKee, his wife of seven years, was at his side and reported to friends the stunning, yet characteristic courage he showed by exclaiming "What a beautiful world," as he slipped away.

Richard William McKee was born in Hammond, Indiana, near Chicago on August 1, 1956. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1978 with a degree in English and philosophy and taught in Rapid City. He then turned to law, graduating from the University of Arizona College of Law in 1989, the same year he passed the Bar.

He was a staff attorney for the House Interior Committee, then returned to Tucson in May 1990 to join one of the city's power firms, Miller Pitt. Two years later, he joined the County Attorney's civil division to get into trial work.

"I proselytized so well, he went to the other side," joked Pat Griffin, a talented and longtime lawyer with Miller Pitt McAnally who has handled a big volume of government-related cases. "He was a wonderful person. Everybody who worked with him, liked him."

McKee was a loyal "Dead Head," but he was able to answer music trivia well beyond the Grateful Dead. His environmental work propelled him to conservation chair of the Rincon Group of the Sierra Club, and he was a member of the Buffers committee that worked to limit construction around Saguaro National Park and other preserves.

It was on the Buffers that he met Nancy Young Wright, an activist who fought to preserve Honeybee Canyon before winning election to the Amphi School Board.

Young Wright remembers how McKee provided advice and an inspiring talk when she organized a rally and march -- with seniors, kids, strollers and dogs -- from Rancho Vistoso to Honeybee.

"We've suffered a tremendous loss in Tucson and the state," Young Wright said.

McKee took leave last spring. The race for a suitable donor was agonizing. But he didn't complain. Indeed, he was so taken with the outpouring of support at a donor drive at the Main Library that he told Huckelberry he was happy that someone who was ill certainly would be helped.

A memorial service for Richard McKee is scheduled at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, November 16, at the Manning House, 450 W. Paseo Redondo.