Died Monday, October 2nd, 2023, at his home at age 73. Robert was born on March 25th, 1950, in Highland Park, Michigan, USA, the first of two children of James M. and Marguerite Catherine (McDougall) McKay. Robert is predeceased by both parents. Surviving are his brother, Donald (Kathleen) of St. John’s NL, Canada, nephews Cameron (Jeannette) of Regina SK and Neil (Rebecca) of Saint John, NB and his niece, Kirsten of Victoria BC. Robert is also survived by his two grandnieces, Mona D. and Grace C. McKay.
Robert, a man of strong values, never married but enjoyed the intense loyalty of friends in the Vassar area and across the country. Of these friends, Robert was especially fond of Kiley Trinklein, to whom he considered himself an ersatz grandfather.
Robert’s relationships with people can be tracked by his nickname. To his parents, he was Robbie or Rob, to his nephews and niece, he was Uncle Mac. School buddies knew him as ‘R’. Aboard ship, he answered to Red Pop or Red, and at university, he was known as either Scottie or to a special friend, Mr. Mac. In the past few decades, however, friends young and old mostly referred to him as Robert.
Not including newspaper delivery on various routes around Vassar and ad hoc work as a photographer for the Vassar Pioneer Times, Robert started his working life immediately after graduation from Vassar High School (’68) as a porter aboard a Great Lakes’ freighter. That same fall, Robert began studies at Michigan State University and used his skills learned as a ship’s porter to work in his dorm’s kitchen preparing tasty meals and often baking more than 100 pies in a day. Robert continued working aboard freighters over the summers and term breaks during his bachelor’s and masters’ programs, eventually gaining the Able Seaman rating.
As a university freshman, Robert joined a campus pipe band and learned to play bagpipes. During his junior year, Robert signed up as a trombonist in the MSU Spartan Marching Band, thus rekindling what eventually became a life-long involvement in brass instruments that first emerged in elementary school and lasted into his final year of life. Still as a college junior, Robert became a part-owner of a business that manufactured survey monuments, and academically, he settled into the study of geography.
Following his bachelor’s degree, Robert entered a master’s program in geography at MSU becoming the department’s first graduate student in the field of cartography during which time he devised the concept of 3-D mapping using laser holograms. His talents as a cartographer were formidable, thus he was selected to lead the technical production of the Atlas of Michigan, undertaken by MSU as a bi-centennial project. In his inimitable form, Robert surreptitiously had artists’ portraits of his friends appear throughout the Atlas in a subtle, but meaningful tribute to their loyalty. During his time in East Lansing, Robert ramped up his participation in partisan politics as a Republican, sometimes as delegate and other times as candidate. Robert continued to serve as a delegate to State and national conventions. Later in life, Robert encouraged many younger people in the Vassar area to engage in politics, often suggesting that they start as precinct delegates or sit on county-wide committees.
Following the Atlas project, Robert studied for a short while at the University of Michigan but left student life for other pursuits starting with a four-month stint aboard an ocean-going container ship that regularly sailed from European ports to those on the Indian Ocean passing repeatedly through the Suez Canal. While in the Canal, Robert was the captain’s preferred helmsman, due to his exceptional skills at the wheel. Then, Robert spent an academic year teaching cartography at Portland State University in Oregon, and after this, Robert made his first move to New York City, working with a task force to redraw State legislative boundaries. Upon completing his contract, he returned to Vassar.
Stating that Robert returned to Vassar is perhaps misleading, as emotionally, Robert never left his hometown. Even during his early years as an MSU student, and as often as every two-weeks, it was common to see him appear on his parents’ doorsteps for a long weekend with Vassar family and friends. Robert was still living full-time in Vassar during the disastrous flood of 1986 following which he responded quickly by organizing volunteers and setting up the Vassar Flood Relief warehouse. Around that time Robert was appointed Vassar City Band Commissioner, and with the capable help of other engaged citizens, resurrected the Vassar City Band that had fallen dormant for years. To facilitate this, Robert quietly organized a party of local youths to help him restore the Hillside Park band shell. Around that time, he also joined the Frankentrost Band, and continued relationships with both bands until his health could no longer sustain his involvement.
In 1988, Robert was invited to become a cartographer at the United Nations headquarters in New York City and worked there until mandatory retirement in 2010. Robert managed his UN schedule so that he could enjoy long weekends in Vassar every two weeks or so, ensuring that he was in town for Vassar City Band concerts, important Frankentrost Band gigs and lawn mowing at his family home. During many of his UN years, Robert sponsored the Robert McKay Yankees Little League Baseball team in Vassar.
Robert was a highly productive map maker at the UN and was selected to participate in numerous international missions. Among the more notable, Robert was one of 19 members in the first delegation of ‘Westerners’ to enter Cambodia as the Cambodian civil war was ending. Gunfire was ongoing during the several week visit, and Robert rode on elephants in the line of duty to cross the land-mine-laced “killing fields” of Cambodia. Most people will not have heard Robert speak of the experience, as he found it so horrific. He attributes the observed horrors to an abrupt change in his hair color from red to white. On other international missions, Robert enjoyed styling himself as “an old Africa hand” by virtue of his many trips to many nations in the continent. He distinguished himself for his work on the Cameroon/Nigeria Boundary Commission. Among other duties and responsibilities, Robert literally oversaw the placement of boundary monuments in actively contentious and desolate areas between the two countries. Likewise, the need for accurate mapping took him to the Balkans amid active fighting during the Bosnian war during the breakup of Czechoslovakia. Perhaps his favorite and safest foreign mission was a mapping assignment near the Sea of Galilee, when Robert was given the opportunity to drive a UN armored personnel carrier over stone roads in Syria built by the Romans two thousand years earlier.
Once fully retired from the UN, Robert immersed himself in activities to improve parks and recreational facilities in Vassar and throughout Tuscola County. Long before his involvement in parks and recreation was official, Robert quietly went about making small improvements such as anonymously replacing basketball nets at Gus Harper Park in Vassar. He dreamed of seeing Vassar become a destination for bicyclists and the mighty Cass River become a destination for canoeists and kayakers.
A funeral service is scheduled for 2:00 p.m., Friday, October 6th at the First Presbyterian Church (250 W. Huron Avenue) in Vassar, MI. Robert’s family will welcome visitors on Thursday, October 5th at the Hanlin Funeral Home in Vassar any time from 3:00 p.m. through 7:00 p.m. Disposition of Robert’s body will be by cremation at a later date. Those desiring to honor Robert’s memory are encouraged to plant trees in his memory or lobby the City of Vassar, Tuscola Township, Tuscola County and State officials to develop and support recreational resources along the ‘mighty Cass’.
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Robert and his family are in the care of Hanlin Funeral Homes - Vassar. 1148 W. Saginaw Rd., Vassar, MI 48768. Phone (989) 823-8621.
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