Portrait hanging in the John E. Robbins Library, photographed by Gordon Goldsborough. Courtesy of S. J. McKee Archives, Brandon University (Manitoba)
McKEE, SAMUEL JAMES, teacher, farmer, professor, and educational administrator; b. 17 July 1849 in Upper Canada, probably in Wellesley Township, son of Samuel McKee and Margaret Roseborough; m. 5 July 1876 Laura Emma Harris in Ingersoll, Ont., and they had five daughters and four sons, of whom three daughters and two sons predeceased him; d. 14 Sept. 1937 in Vancouver and was buried in Brandon, Man.
Samuel James McKee grew up on the family farm in Waterloo County, Upper Canada, and was educated at public schools in Wellesley Township. At age 16 he attended the Stratford Grammar School and sometime later he studied at the Brantford Grammar School. In 1868 he entered the University of Toronto, and he would become a member of the University of Toronto Company in the Queen’s Own Rifles. As a student, he fell particularly under the influence of Professor George Paxton Young*. He made an impression at the university. When he graduated with a ba in 1872, he was awarded the silver medal in metaphysics.
Through his scholarly accomplishments, McKee had attracted the attention of Robert Alexander Fyfe*, a leading Baptist educator, founder of the Canadian Literary Institute in Woodstock, and a member of the university senate. Fyfe recruited McKee for a post at the institute; McKee would stay there for eight years (1873–81), teaching English and mathematics. From the co-educational, liberal character of the school, he acquired the model for educational initiatives he would undertake in western Canada. The son of an Irish Baptist, McKee experienced a rebirth of his faith while at Woodstock. Colin Campbell McLaurin, a student at the institute, would later recall that “there was a wonderful thrill experienced in the body of 200 students on the morning it was reported ‘Professor McKee is converted.’”
In 1873 McKee travelled with Alexander McDonald, one of the first missionaries delegated by the Baptist Missionary Convention of Ontario to establish the denomination in the west. Although McKee declared that he was going only “to see the country,” the trip may have contributed to his subsequent interest in Baptist higher education on the prairies. He may also have been influenced by Fyfe, an ardent advocate of Baptist education.
While still employed at the school in Woodstock, in 1876 McKee married Laura Emma Harris, a native of Ontario who had been a student at the institute when they met. But not all was well. McKee’s health was indifferent, so, in 1882, on the advice of his physician, he and his family moved to the more rigorous climate of Manitoba. He took up a homestead near Rapid City, drawn there by relatives and the new Prairie College created in 1879 by the Reverend John Crawford and McKee’s brother-in-law the Reverend George B. Davis to train young men for the Baptist ministry. McKee laboured on his farm, became deacon of the Baptist church in Rapid City, and perhaps most importantly, returned to teaching. In 1882 he helped Davis set up the Rapid City Academy, a co-educational secondary school accepting boarders and day pupils aged 13 and older. When Davis was called to a church in Moose Jaw ( Sask.) late in 1882 or early the next year, McKee continued to run the academy.
Although Prairie College had failed by 1883, a victim in part of the centralization of Baptist theological training at the recently established Toronto Baptist College, interest in a Baptist institution of postsecondary education in the west continued. McKee was present on 1 Aug. 1889 when the Baptist Convention of Manitoba and the North-West embraced a proposal to found a college in Brandon. This occasion marked a turning point in his life. Before the convention he had decided to leave Rapid City for a broader field of activity. In early August he and his family headed east. On 15 August John Harden Best, chairman of the Baptist mission board in Brandon, informed McKee that he had been appointed, for one month, to canvass in Ontario for funds for the college. McKee’s efforts were unsuccessful. There were too many competing claims on the resources of Canadian Baptists in 1889.
With an eye to the future, McKee moved to Brandon in the fall of 1890. He opened Brandon Academy, which offered classes “specially adapted to young men and women” in basic and advanced English, shorthand, typewriting, music (piano and organ), drawing, and painting (oil and watercolour.) The institution also gave commercial classes and readied candidates for examinations for teachers’ certificates or admission to the University of Manitoba. As he had in Woodstock, McKee earned the affection and respect of his students. In a letter written in 1894 they expressed their “esteem and gratitude” to the man who “had the welfare of each of us at heart.”
During the 1890s the question of creating a Baptist college was discussed annually at the Baptist Convention of Manitoba and the North-West, but disagreements as to the type of establishment required and its location delayed action. In the summer of 1899 Brandon College was finally established on the foundation prepared by McKee. His academy merged with the college and he assumed the position of professor of philosophy and was de facto vice-principal. Classes started in October with 110 students. The college offered preparatory courses and secondary and postsecondary education. In 1904 McMaster University in Toronto acknowledged McKee’s trailblazing educational work in western Canada by awarding him an honorary lld. From 1910 to 1918 McKee would also carry out the duties of registrar and maintain his reputation as a fine teacher. In 1913 a colleague, Douglas Leader Durkin, published an appreciation of him in the college’s student newspaper, the Quill, in which he observed that “no one has ever surpassed Doctor McKee in the wholesome respect of the students.” In 1918 a reorganization of the college was planned. It involved the appointment of Harris Lachlan MacNeill to replace McKee as acting dean and the reduction of McKee’s duties to that of registrar, at a lower salary. McKee objected and resigned. Negotiations to retain him were undertaken and in September he agreed to return as registrar, with clerical assistance, and as teacher of philosophy. He finally retired in 1920 because of ill health. At that time he was appointed professor emeritus. He continued to serve on the college’s board of directors until 1922, when he moved to Vancouver; he spent the remainder of his retirement years there.
An early settler of the Canadian west, Samuel James McKee had created opportunities for educational advancement. The first permanent postsecondary academic institution west of Winnipeg was established on foundations he had laid. His life and work were inspired by his commitment to the Baptist faith and his devotion to the teaching profession. An unsigned article in the Western Baptist noted on his death in 1937 that “in the passing of Dr. McKee Western Canada has lost one of its foremost pioneer educationalists and the Baptist denomination one of its most ardent supporters.”
Brandon Univ., S. J. McKee Arch. (Man.), MG 1, 1.1; RG 1, ser.1. UTARMS, A1973-0026/277(85). D. L. D[urkin], “S. J. McKee: an appreciation,” Quill (Brandon), Christmas 1913: 13–15. W. E. Ellis, “What the times demand: Brandon College and Baptist higher education in western Canada,” in Canadian Baptist and Christian higher education, ed. G. A. Rawlyk (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1988), 63–87. “The late Dr. S. J. McKee,” Western Baptist (Winnipeg), 30 (1937–38), no.7: 3–4. C. C. McLaurin, Pioneering in western Canada: a story of the Baptists (Calgary, 1939). Tommy McLeod, “McKee of Brandon College,” Manitoba Hist. (Winnipeg), no.40 (fall 2000–winter 2001): 33–46. F. H. Schofield, The story of Manitoba (3v., Winnipeg, 1913), 2: 43–44. C. G. Stone and F. J. Garnett, Brandon College: a history, 1899–1967 (Brandon, 1969).