Eugene McKay (1941–)

Eugene McKay was a prominent educator in Arkansas in the second half of the twentieth century. He is most closely identified with Arkansas State University–Beebe (ASU–Beebe), where he spent just short of five decades, eventually rising to become the school’s chancellor, a post he held for a little over twenty years before retiring in 2016.

Eugene McKay was born on May 5, 1941, in Amagon (Jackson County). His parents were farmers. Much of McKay’s early life was spent picking and chopping cotton. The McKay family moved frequently to do farm work, but they were usually in the Amagon area. McKay attended a number of rural schools in Amagon, Wiona (Independence County), and Charlotte (Independence County) before the family settled in Bradford (White County), just a few miles from the Cache River. McKay went to high school in Bradford. The McKay family’s house was consumed by fire in the middle of his senior year. McKay graduated from Bradford High School in 1959.

In high school, McKay had not aspired to higher education, but that changed after Yvonne Wilson, a recruiter for Arkansas College (now Lyon College), arrived at Bradford High School to talk with members of the senior class. McKay later mused that he probably went to hear her make her pitch only to get out of going to class, but when she asked McKay if he would go to college if she could get him the necessary money, he answered yes. He later admitted that he never expected to see Wilson again. But two weeks later, she returned, providing some of the money herself, while also helping arrange the necessary work study program at the college.

McKay has often recalled how unprepared he was for the academic challenges of college. However, in 1964, McKay earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Arkansas College, then spent two years teaching high school English and French in Alton, Missouri, where he met his future wife, Judy; they were married for forty-seven years before she died in 2013.

Returning to Arkansas in 1966, he took a position as a French and English instructor at what is now Arkansas State University–Beebe. At the same time, he embarked on a master’s degree program, spending the summers at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) until he completed the degree. Then in 1971, both he and his wife, who also taught English at ASU–Beebe, took three-year sabbaticals to earn their doctorates at the University of Mississippi.

In addition to their teaching responsibilities, he and his wife served as residence hall parents for a men’s dormitory, Quapaw Hall. He also served as the journalism advisor. In 1987, he was named vice chancellor for academic affairs at ASU–Beebe. He held that post until 1995 when he became chancellor after the sudden death in 1994 of William H. Owen Jr.

At ASU–Beebe, McKay witnessed many changes, including a massive increase in the student population; during McKay’s chancellorship, the school’s enrollment grew from 2,800 to more than 6,300. In addition, more than forty buildings on the ASU–Beebe main campus were either newly constructed or renovated. ASU–Beebe was also the site of a number of innovative programs, such as the John Deere Ag Tech Program and the Advanced Studies Program.

McKay served on a number of local boards, including the Beebe (White County), Cabot (Lonoke County), and Searcy (White County) chambers of commerce. McKay also served on the board of Arkansas Community Colleges (ACC), and he chaired the group’s president and chancellors division. He has also served on the Advancing White County Steering Committee, as well as the boards of Unity Health and the United Way of White County.

Just before he retired, the student center at ASU–Beebe was renamed the Dr. Eugene McKay Student Center. The Beebe Chamber of Commerce presented him with both its Lifetime Achievement Award and its Educator of the Year Award, and the ACC gave him its Outstanding Faculty Award in 2015.

For additional information:
Acuff, Morgan. “Eugene McKay: Chancellor Retires after Nearly 50 Years at ASU-Beebe,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Three Rivers Edition, September 27, 2015, pp. 4S–5S. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2015/sep/27/chancellor-retires-after-nearly-50-years-asu-beebe/ (accessed November 19, 2020).

“ASU-Beebe Chancellor McKay to Retire After 50 Years of Service.” Arkansas State University System, January 7, 2016. https://www.asusystem.edu/headlines/asu-beebe-chancellor-mckay-to-retire-after-50-years-of-service (accessed November 19, 2020).

Brosius, Jeanni. “Eugene McKay: From the Cotton Fields to Earning a Doctorate.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 10, 2011. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2011/jul/10/eugene-mckay-20110710/ (accessed November 19, 2020).

Musa, Aziza. “Longtime Chancellor Looks Back.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, January 3, 2016, pp. 1B, 6B.

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 11/19/2020

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