Poet and educator Louis McKee passed away Nov. 21 at the age of 60, (1951-2011) after a long illness.
McKee taught English at Father Judge High School for three decades. Thousands of students passed through his class room, a right of passage at Judge. Many of those students followed in his footsteps, becoming teachers themselves.
Robert Burns, an English teacher at Central High School was one such student. Burns remembered the influence of McKee:
“In a world where people are always afraid, Lou never was. He showed his students that literature was an adventure by strapping them in and taking them for the ride of their lives. Lou took me on that ride and I have never looked back. I have never been afraid because Lou killed fear with life. In my high school yearbook he wrote, ‘You are now standing on the edge of a dark dismal precipice. Ain’t it fun?’ He was a few months shy of 30 when he wrote that. He was right. Today there is a huge hole in the universe, but tomorrow I will go to school and take my students for a ride.”
McKee’s love of poetry was his central focus throughout his life. Students such as Thomas Devaney, Joseph Farley and Steve Delia followed his footsteps into the world of verse. McKee was a major influence on Devaney, a poet and visiting professor at Haverford.
”Louis McKee was a story-teller and a bard. I knew Lou personally as a teacher, poet, publisher, editor, critic, mentor and friend,” Devaney said. “I have at least 100 letters from him. He was a real poet. He was an honest poet. He was a poet who was able to capture the unexpected music of his working class Irish-Catholic world. Lou was mightily modest and mightily proud. He had a great ear and a great eye, but above all, he had a great heart.”
McKee was a rough and tumble type of guy who could be just as gentle. Lawndale poet Diane Sahms-Guarnieri reflected on McKee. “After hearing of Lou’s passing, I returned to the pages of river architecture, rereading what he had written to me when he signed my copy of his book: ‘For Diane – in the good name of poetry- Louis McKee.’ With Lou’s quote in mind, I reread his poems and was stopped by his shortest poem, titled, What Matters:
You think you could not have mattered/that much…/ I pick up the right stone/and throw it; watch the river change.
“I thought, yes Lou, you really knew what mattered and in the good name of poetry, rest assured that you, yourself, have changed the river.”
McKee published more than 17 volumes of poetry and was published in hundreds of magazines, like The American Poetry Review and Three Penny Review and after achieving such status, still supported the small press by contributing to local magazines like The Schuylkill Valley Journal and The Fox Chase Review. Several of his poems were read by Garrision Keillor on the Writers Almanac Radio Show.
McKee published other poets with his own publishing house, Banshee Press; served as editor of The Painted Bride Quarterly, One Trick Pony Magazine and numerous anthologies; conducted work shops; and served as a judge in numerous poetry contests.
The poetry of Louis McKee reflected life around him. He wrote of love, Philadelphia, family and his long-standing connection to the Delaware River and Pennypack Creek. He once described living in Holmesburg as living “where the Pennypack falls into the Delaware.”
The poet Gerald Stern described his poems: “They have something to do with Louis McKee, something to do with Pennsylvania, and something to do with our strange lives. They are moving poems.”
The late William Stafford said his poetry, “. . . makes the air carry you into quick adventures and curlicues. He is so adept at turning all kinds of sudden glimpse into good patterns.”
His longtime friend, poet Philip Dacey said of McKee’s poetry, “To read McKee is to witness drama and struggle, if the art is hard-won, the human victories are too. McKee is a bracing and welcome poet, whose artistry and accomplishment must not go unsung.”
A number of memorials are being planned to honor Louis McKee. Funeral arrangements will be private for the family.