Twinkle spills out of Walt McKinstry’s eyes as he talks about his late wife Mary. You can hear the smile in his voice as he recalls meeting her for the first time at an oil company’s office near Midland, Texas.
“I was an oil reporter and I figured out very quickly that I should try to warm up to the secretaries in the offices as that was where I could get some of my best information,” Walt recalls. “Mary was a secretary and a draftsperson for Delhi Taylor Oil Company and she knew a lot about what was happening around there at the time.” Funny thing happened, however, in the process of writing his news reports; he also fell in love with her. A love that lasts still to this day, despite laying her to rest last July.
As a means to honor Mary’s memory and a way to benefit Northeastern Junior College (NJC), Walt and his two grown daughters decided to donate $9,500 to the college in order that one of the music practice rooms in the now being remodeled E.S. French Hall will bear her name. You see, Mary loved to play the piano. In addition to the monetary donation, the family also donated an electric piano for student use. Along with the piano comes a large collection of sheet music, some pieces dating back to the 1920s.
While the state of Colorado put money forward to renovate the building, which had been on the capital improvements list for more than 15 years, the higher cost of construction now versus then did not leave any dollars for new furnishings in the building once it reopens. The college’s Foundation has taken on the task of finding donors who will help cover this cost.
Mary Pickering McKinstry was Walt’s wife, but she was also an NJC student. At the age of 50, she came to campus in 1981 to take classes. Even though she’d had a quite colorful life already, she was interested in studying more about computers and being part of the college’s music program. She was already a very accomplished pianist, so while studying here, she accompanied many of the practicing students with their music activities. She found being a non-traditional student humorous and wrote some of her observances out in a journal. She enjoyed learning the college jargon at the time and one thing she noted was that the younger girls all seem to bathe in scent, something she found overpowering at the time. It was, however, a sign of the times when the perfume industry was mass producing designer colognes like never before.
Born in Crane, Texas, Mary attended Texas schools into her sophomore year and then moved with her parents to a farm near Anderson, Mo. She graduated there at the top of her class and went on to attend business school. Her business training served her well. She had jobs in Texas and New Mexico after she and Walt were married. He had earned his advanced degree in journalism from the University of Colorado and in 1958 had the opportunity to return to his home town of Julesburg and purchase the Julesburg Grit-Advocate. For the next 13 years, Walt and Mary would work side by side to run the newspaper. During these years, the couple had two daughters, Kerry Jay and Lillian Ruth.
In 1971, the McKinstrys sold the newspaper. They continued to live in Julesburg and Mary began making the drive to Sterling several days a week to be a student at Northeastern. She continued working part-time at various office jobs and from 1990-2014, she volunteered full-time at the Fort Sedgwick History Society. Walt began focusing on farming full-time. Mary loved to play her piano and would take a seat at the keyboard after having rummaged through the large collection of sheet music. She could play virtually anything she randomly pulled to the top of the stack and also knew many pieces by heart. According to Walt, Mary had a lot of sheet music of her own but much of what was donated to the college came from the McKinstry family and some from a couple estates in the Julesburg area. All told, there is easily 1,000 or more songs represented in this gifted collection.
Walt knew about and loved Northeastern a few years before he met Mary. He graduated from NJC in 1950. “All of my teachers were the people these buildings are named after,” he notes, remembering how he worked so hard academically to be able to pass his classes. Otherwise, he knew he would be drafted. “If you look back at the old annuals during those war years, you will see that there were lots and lots of young men in PTK,” he says matter of fact. “If you didn’t pass your classes, you had to go to the draft. I had teachers here who would make certain I was in study hall if I wasn’t in class. They were all helping me keep my grades up.” He says that it was his college education that would later save his life. “I went from NJC on over to CU and then I went to the military. I was one of just five guys out of more than 90 that was named an officer because I had a college degree,” he remembers. “The five of us were shipped to Europe and the rest of the guys went to Korea and many of them did not ever come back. I’ve always felt like my college education probably saved my life.”
McKinstry has kept a strong tie to Northeastern. He served for a number of years on the college’s alumni association board of directors and was a key player in the development of the Heritage Center on campus which now houses the history of the college.
McKinstry encourages others to consider supporting the fundraising that is currently taking place to help furnish E.S. French Hall, the liberal arts building on campus. It is scheduled to be re-opened this December. “What a great way to help out the college,” he said, “and also put your name — or the name of someone you love — on something that will last well into the future.”
Walt was on campus last week and toured the building, still in its construction phase. The practice rooms aren’t yet framed out, but soon will be. He’ll be back later in the fall to see which room will bear his sweet Mary’s name. He brought a picture of Mary with him, thinking perhaps one day her picture might go up in her practice room so today’s students will also know of her. That, he says, would be music to his ears.
In addition to the money and the piano and the sheet music, the McKinstry family also donated a very nice collection of rock fossils which were collected in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and elsewhere. These fossils have been placed in the college’s science department and will be used as teaching tools in several disciplines.
If you would be interested in learning more about donating to the E.S. French Building project, contact Northeastern Junior College President Dr. Jay Lee directly at 521-6601. Many opportunities exist for naming rights to various rooms in the building, including the beautiful new atrium, classrooms, black box theatre and commons areas. The building will experience very high traffic as a center for the arts in northeastern Colorado once it is reopened.