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Monday December 3, 2012

He knew early he belonged behind a mic

Broadcaster spent career covering Canada's major sports events, a job his daughter said he would have done for free

Special to The Globe and Mail

Tom McKee sat behind a microphone on April 7, 1977, to broadcast the first of many baseball games for the fledgling Toronto Blue Jays. As the face and voice of the Jays, McKee was relaxed, knowledgeable and confident. During a long career leading up to that inaugural spring, McKee covered sports on television and radio from the Olympics to the Grey Cup to the Canada Cup hockey series, and countless sporting events in between. However, the first time McKee found himself behind a radio mic was a different story. Receiving a visual cue that he was to speak, the first words out of McKee's mouth to hit the airwaves were "Me? Now?" They became the title of an unpublished memoir that McKee wrote for his family after retirement.

Thomas Henry McKee was born on April 2, 1936, in Ingersoll, Ont., the youngest in a family of four boys and two girls. His father, Frederick "Brass" McKee, was a First World War veteran who worked at Ingersoll Piano. His mother, Vera Agnus, had her hands full with their large brood. As one of many daily chores, the young McKee had to remove ashes from an old Quebec heater as well as empty a water pan from the bottom of the icebox without spilling any on the floor. Duties aside, McKee found plenty of time to fish, play sports and watch a 25-cent Saturday matinée at the local cinema. In his memoir, McKee refers to his childhood as "normal and ordinary." Extraordinary to him was the whole world of entertainment emerging from radio. Frequently invited to the home of a radio hobbyist, young McKee listened, fascinated on a second set of earphones, as his neighbour twiddled with knobs, vacuum tubes and dry-cell batteries to pick up radio signals from as far away as Pittsburgh. This mysterious intriguing process, coupled with radio shows like Amos 'n' Andy, fired McKee's imagination. To his family's chagrin, McKee created a make-believe broadcast booth in the kitchen. He read news aloud from the paper followed by music from one of his 45-rpm records. In grade eight, bedridden for nine months by a heart murmur, the teen was forced to give up serious athletics like hockey and baseball. "But," writes McKee, "radio continued to call and I continued to listen."

CKOX, the voice of Oxford County, was broadcast from a single tower south of Woodstock. McKee, who referred to himself in his memoir as "bullheaded," was determined to become a CKOX announcer. He gave up high school at 17, something he later regretted. The small station became a training ground where McKee announced everything from world news, farm news, weather reports, obituaries and birth notices. He hitchhiked home every night to save money.

After two years at CKOX, McKee moved to a radio station in St. Thomas, Ont., where he began to specialize in news and sports. During this period, at age 20, he married 19-year-old Eleanor Folden, the only child of a farming family. Money was tight at the radio station, ratings weren't good and stress was high. McKee met with the manager of a local television station to discuss finding work at CBC radio. Television hadn't crossed McKee's mind, but the manager set up an audition. Two weeks later, McKee made his TV debut at London's CFPL Channel 10 on The World at Large, an eight-minute newscast. McKee wrote, "My heart was beating so fast and hard I'm sure my tie was jumping up and down." By the time the newscast was finished, McKee felt sure he and television were made for each other. McKee was soon in demand as a commercial announcer selling everything from tea to frozen bull semen. Since commercials aired live, when something went awry, like a baby leghorn chick pooping on McKee's hand, there was nothing he could do but laugh and carry on.

"My dad was very much an 'in the moment' kind of guy," says daughter Kerry McKee. "I think he learned that from doing live television."

By age 21, McKee was making $12,000 a year, enough to support a family that eventually grew to six children, including twin boys.

After a brief stint at a television station in Montreal, McKee heard that CFRB, one of the biggest private radio stations in Canada, was looking for a news announcer. After a successful audition, McKee stepped into the big time. National commercials offered a lucrative sideline, especially when McKee became the voice for Molson Export beer's line, "The big ale in the big land."

McKee's next move was to CHCH television in Hamilton where he did colour commentary for the American Hockey League. A year later, Johnny Esaw convinced McKee to join CFTO concentrating on sports. In 1967, McKee covered an event that he says, "Few appreciated at the time in terms of sports history." The Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. Afterward, McKee and his wife were invited to the home of club president Stafford Smythe for a giant party. McKee says it was a grand affair with hundreds of people. "Nobody cared what condition you were in when you left."

McKee enjoyed a drink, but gave up smoking after the 1962 surgeon-general's report about its dangers. He had three big occasions coming up where he wanted to smoke. He gave himself permission to smoke one cigarette at each event then quit for good. He said he was unable to claim the same success in his eternal battle with the bulge.

McKee adored his job. Were it not for having to support a large family, daughter Kerry McKee jokes he would probably have worked for free. McKee thought the constant travel for work might have contributed to the eventual breakdown of his marriage.

"Dad was very much the patriarch," says Kerry. "I don't think he understood the work involved in raising children until he had grandchildren."

McKee didn't end his marriage without a great deal of soul-searching. "Dad always believed in doing the right thing," says Kerry. "Even though they hadn't lived together for years he included my mother in his will. That surprised us."

Of his second marriage to CIBC executive Joan Greenwood, McKee wrote, "Patience and understanding replaced arguing and fighting."

From 1967, McKee's star rose steadily at CBC sports and network radio where he added the role of producer to his résumé. McKee, who loved to joke and tell stories, was an affable, outgoing man with a great sense of humour. One of his favourite stories involved the time his belt got to play in the 1969 Grey Cup. During the game, a panicked place kicker rushed to McKee on the sidelines yelling "Tom, Tom. Give me your belt. Mine just broke and I've got to kick off." McKee readily complied, thereafter turning the incident into a gleeful trivia question. On another occasion, reporting on an equestrian event in which Princess Anne was competing, McKee was afforded a brief interview with Prince Philip. Having been lectured in advance on royal protocol for the interview, McKee was delighted when the Prince requested a further informal chat. An additional highlight occurred in 1991, just before McKee retired. McKee was the sole broadcaster as Nolan Ryan pitched his record-breaking seventh no-hitter. McKee freeze-framed the final pitch and had Nolan Ryan sign 52 copies as gifts for his crew.

Sportscaster Brian Williams says McKee had an amazing ability to put his audience at ease, that he was the consummate host and an excellent play-by-play man.

"Tom McKee was one of the first generation of major TV sportscasters in this country along with Don Chevrier, Ernie Afaganis, Don Wittman, and Ted Reynolds. They were the 'big five' for years. When you watched Tom on television you could tell he enjoyed life. He was fun to be around. He was a good public speaker. He was a great teammate. I learned an awful lot from Tom McKee."

After a long illness, Tom McKee died on Nov. 5 at South Lake Regional Hospital in Newmarket, Ont. He was 76. He leaves his immediate family and 16 grandchildren.

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