Requiem for Sam McKee

One year after his death, remembering the remarkable Sam McKee.

by Bob Heyden

We’ve reached one year since the passing of Sam McKee. Born March 24, 1962, Sam just missed making it to his 55th birthday by a touch over two weeks. I’d be lying if I said I’ve moved on, that a whole truckload of things didn’t remind me of Sam, that I didn’t feel cheated or shorted in some way. Like many in the past 365 days, I’ve asked, “Why him?” It felt like Sam was snatched from our collective arms too soon. But I won’t allow myself to go there for one very simple reason: Sam wouldn’t allow it. You see, he’s still with me. This past year, under his guidance — kind of a conscience sitting on my shoulder — we together put out the John Campbell retirement video.

I’ve done the math and I am proud to announce that I believe I may have worked more with Sam McKee than anyone else. Eighteen years at the Meadowlands and 16 years at Harrisburg. If this seems a bit childish that I’d be doing this kind of arithmetic — and that it would matter at all — so be it. Fifty four years just wasn’t enough for me, nor his treasured girls. Safe to say, we all wanted more. But, because Sam would have insisted that our focus be elsewhere, I’ll take my own selfishness out of it and tell you some more about the man, the friend, the father, the confidant, the person.

There’s a saying that goes, “Life is not measured by the numbers of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” It is imperative for me, and I would think better for us all who cared and admired Sam, to realize how fortunate we were to have had him for 54 plus years. To unify and continue on — just as he would like — to better ourselves, help the sport we care for the most and simply become the best that we can be. Sam had a certain calmness, a kindness, and a welcoming way that was simply part of his DNA. He could be folksy, he could be corporate. It was the very same guy who had the sturdiness to tell the truth and then the compassion to lead a handful of kids over to the Big Bounce for the first time.

I remember 1999, when Sam and his family first moved here. We were taping the “Inside Track”-and Sam made the smoothest of transitions fitting right in. That was also a Hambletonian record-setting season — Self Possessed in 1:51.3. By that summer, he already belonged. He made an immediate impression. He worked, he cared, he mentored and he excelled. Upon first looks, you might have thought — and you’d have been right — that his man was boundlessly unselfish. It seemed like he came into this world with an extended hand — one to help one along, to lift you up, or maybe to help you find your way. In the 52 weeks since his passing, I’m still hearing anecdotes about the artist where Sam went out of his way to get his display out front and center, or the administrative assistant who was trying to find out how to do something and then realized, “Oh, that’s right, Sam did that, too.”

Though the new guy on the block in 1999, Sam was quickly bringing plenty to the table and established himself as reliable — something of a Go-To Guy right from the start. It wasn’t long before I found out that trying to keep up with Sam was like trying to stuff a marshmallow into a piggy bank. But it was a good thing. Hey, we were all on the same side with a common purpose and Sam was as vital a Meadowlands employee as there ever was. Just more versatile. All hats seemed to fit.

Allow me to ramble on with some word associations, or two, concerning Sam: Smooth, caring, interested, total recall, range of topics, versatility, tireless, wanna-be driver, “big move”, Jug Day, Red Mile, generosity, Michigan Wolverines, Starbucks, “The Man-The Myth-The Legend”, Martin Truex, Nascar, undeniable efficiency, family, Harness Horse Youth Foundation.

They say you are judged by the amount of lives you’ve touched.

I am also reminded about something I didn’t think that much about until recently. David Miller and Sam McKee. Great friends. Both moved east in 1999 to give it a go at the Meadowlands. It was not an experiment, they were both all in. Both had only daughters, both were already established in the field, just not on a national level. Though on the quieter side, they both rose to the top of their profession and you can hardly think of Jug Day without either of them in the picture. Both made the Hall Of Fame — back-to-back years (2012-2013). Fittingly, Sam’s last signature call was of Always B Miki setting the world standard of 1:46 in a race with David Miller driving.

I cannot help but be saddened that Sam didn’t get to see the first overtime Super Bowl, or the first disqualification from first in the Hambletonian. He didn’t get to chat about why the Mets and the Detroit Tigers had off seasons in 2017. But his race calls live on, his teachings echo every day in our ears and his handshake forever extended. You know THAT handshake, right? I used to think only ambassadors at the United Nations got those.

In 2012-2013, Sam and I entered the Communicators Hall Of Fame together. Put simply, it couldn’t possibly get any better than that.

I have often felt that somebody, likely a school principal or a grandparent, pointed a young Sam McKee in the right direction a whole bunch of years ago. Like when he was in early grade school. They told him to go out into the world, make it a better place, always help others, be polite and respectful and don’t look for accolades. I’d like to thank that person or persons who did this. Many, many thanks.

I also remember Sam as a man for all age groups. On the board of the Harness Horse Youth Foundation, he was equally at home with the teens as he was with the 70-somethings that would stop by the TV set. There were no boundaries of any sort. Ever.

We’re in 2018. Think about how many people you currently know who are happiest when they are taking their daughter to practice, shovelling, out a neighbor, bringing coffee to a co-worker, checking to see if your flight was on time. Outside of a husband or wife, this is a bygone era. Sam was a throwback guy, one who found that 24 hours in the day simply wasn’t enough for his girls. Melissa McKee told me last year, “If you think my father was a great person to work with, you wouldn’t believe what he was like as a father.” Somehow, I did.

I hope I speak for the many thousands of lives that Sam touched. Not everybody has a forum to speak through. I am so proud to know his family, so happy to have had the opportunity to have worked side by side, myself Ken Warkentin and Sam made for an great team.

There’s a saying: “They were men before they were monuments.” Think about this, say in 30-40 years. I want to be a fly on the wall for the person who looks at the bronze statue of Sam McKee and is explaining Sam to his/her children. Or students.

Finally, there’s an expression that says, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.” There can be little doubt that Sam’s suite is second to none.