One of the first VIPs my dad met when we moved to Winter Park in 1967 was Hugh McKean, then president of Rollins College. Worrell Newspapers, a chain of medium-sized dailies located mostly in the Southeast, had bought the venerable Winter Park Sun-Herald, and had plucked my dad from a position as advertising manager for the daily newspaper in Florence, Alabama, to move south and become the long-established weekly’s publisher.
Having made several advance trips to Winter Park with other Worrell executives in the months leading up to the purchase, my dad quickly learned that earning Dr. McKean’s good will should be among his first priorities.
So, before we were even fully unpacked, my dad had made an appointment to visit the sophisticated artist-turned-administrator at his campus office. Dad was determined to make an important ally, and to prove that Winter Park’s hometown newspaper had not been taken over by hillbillies — the parent company’s Alabama connections notwithstanding.
But a cowboy shirt threatened to undermine those efforts.
The morning of his meeting with Dr. McKean, my dad could not find the box that contained his suits. In fact, the only shirt he could locate was a horrific western-cut garment fashioned from some shiny, chemical-based substance such as rayon.
A scene of cacti, tumbleweeds and cowpokes with lassos twirling adorned the front above each pocket. The images weren’t even properly embroidered — they were garishly printed on the shimmering white fabric. The shirt looked like something Roy Rogers’ ne’er-do-well cousin might have worn.
Decades later, my dad vowed that he had never before even seen this shirt. It was certainly not something he ever would have worn, even as a joke. Yet, he was due to arrive at Dr. McKean’s office in 15 minutes. And, because the appointment was early in the morning, no stores were open where he could buy something more acceptable.
My dad felt that it would be rude to call and cancel at the last minute (although perhaps not as rude as showing up bare chested). So he resolved to keep the appointment, wear the cowboy shirt and make the best of it. He’d simply tell Dr. McKean the truth — that we hadn’t finished unpack-ing, and he unexpectedly couldn’t locate his suits. At least he’d find out whether or not this particular pillar of the community possessed a sense of humor.
I recall hearing later that the meeting went well, and that Dr. McKean was greatly amused about the sartorial snafu. In years to come, he would visit the Sun-Herald offices on Park Avenue and drop off essays — which my dad usually ran on the front page — about whatever was on his mind.
One essay, I recall, was a prescient prediction about offering college courses on educational television or otherwise delivering them electronically, making higher education accessible to everyone.
Nearly 50 years later, I’m writing about Dr. McKean in this issue of Winter Park Magazine. Hopefully, the story will offer a balanced — and perhaps unexpected — look at this extraordinary Winter Park icon, who’s remembered today mainly as an endearingly quirky philanthropist. That’s a partially true — but grossly simplistic — description of a complex man.
And as my dad could have told you, he had a sense of humor about cheap cowboy shirts.