This article appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Texoma Living!.
“The day of the Christmas parade in 1995, I had gone to a doctor for a second opinion. I came right up here, straight from the doctor’s office. I had a parade to do. I did the parade and then met my husband at a Christmas party. I sat there beside him and told him I had to go to the hospital in two days.”
It was not supposed to play out that way. Two weeks earlier, the Denison Chamber of Commerce had offered Anna McKinney their top job. She had accepted and was now the new Chamber President. “I was so excited that they had finally recognized my ability and then…” Too often, there is a “then.
Everything happened so quickly. “I walked out of the office on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘By the way, I won’t be here Monday; I’ve got to go to the hospital and have a test, but I will be here Tuesday for the board meeting.’ That weekend I put up the Christmas tree, and I came down here to get ready for the board meeting. I don’t know why, but something told me to get everything in order.”
A biopsy on Monday confirmed what she instinctively knew. There was no real option, no choice to make, so instead of Tuesday’s Chamber board meeting, she woke up in a hospital recovery room following a mastectomy.
Sherry Christie: “Anna and I are very good friends. Her surgery was complicated by factors they had a hard time dealing with back then. The recovery was tough, but she never complained. That says something about her.”
“I looked at it as, I could laugh or cry, and crying wasn’t going to change it. It was a reality,” said McKinney. “I was alive, so I opted to laugh. I put a smile on my face and came back to work. I walked in here, and I couldn’t open my desk drawer. The girls would come in and get everything laid out and I’d start to work.” She had overcome the great unknown that lay beyond that little word “then” and would go right on, day by day.
Anna McKinney grew up in Oklahoma. Her father, James Hannan was a merchant who had a variety and hardware store in Colbert, and her mother, Wyota, ran the auto tag agency for the state. McKinney graduated from high school in 1967, had a scholarship opportunity to go to Southeastern Oklahoma in Durant, but passed it by. College just didn’t seem that necessary, and besides, she had other plans.
“You’ve got to go to college today, but it wasn’t that way then,” she said. “I didn’t feel strongly about it (college), and I wanted to get married. That wasn’t that unusual then.” So Anna Hannan married Phillip Weger, and went to work to put her new husband through school. That wasn’t that unusual either. Neither was their break up a few years later.
Married so young, “we just grew apart,” she said.
Before that, she looked south, across the Red River, for her first real job after high school. “We always looked south,” she said. “We always came to Denison to shop and do everything other than what you had to do in Bryant County.” She found the job too, working for Frank Darnell in his real estate office. “He was one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever known. He told me, ‘If you’ll work hard here for me, I will help you, and you will do great.’ I was the secretary, the bookkeeper; I did everything. I ran his office.”
She worked in the real estate office for about a year before husband Phillip joined the Marine Corps. She followed him to California and then to North Carolina. When he came home from Vietnam, the couple, with daughter, Tonya, born in 1969, moved back to Colbert— working at her father’s variety store and then with her mother at the Oklahoma Tax Commission Motor Vehicle Office. Phillip worked in Denison, and life rocked on day by day. The Wegers had another little girl, Phyllis, in 1972.
In 1977, McKinney heard about an opening at the Chamber of Commerce. She brought experience, a wealth of office skills, a strong recommendation from Frank Darnell and something else to the interview—she was from Oklahoma. “One of the reasons Jim Hardy hired me was because I lived in Oklahoma,” she said. “He felt the Chamber represents the area, and he thought it would be good to have someone from the other side of the lake.”
One of only three employees at the Chamber at the time, McKinney had found a niche. “From day one I loved working at the Chamber, meeting people, the variety, the challenge. I’m well known to be a multitask person. I love bouncing all the balls.” There were a lot of balls to keep bouncing.
McKinney started as the receptionist, became the bookkeeper, the office manager, eventually took on tourism and in time added economic development to her portfolio. If there was something to do, she did it. “When I started work here, it really was answering the phone, visiting with people who came in and wanted a map or to know what there was to see and do. I took minutes at some of the meetings.”
Working in an office was a bit more labor intensive before the arrival of computers and laser printers and fax machines. It comes as a revelation to people used to those things that not so long ago every letter started with rolling a piece of paper into a typewriter. “Today you can do one letter and then tweak it a little bit and go on, but then each letter was a little project. I think that people today have lost the art of letter writing,” said McKinney.
“Last week I was going through some old files, and I kept thinking, ‘What beautiful letters.’ We don’t write letters now, but when I first came to work here, I could walk out at the end of the day, and I might have composed twenty letters, typed each one, got them signed and got them out. The copier used to catch fire if you made more than ten copies. I mean that literally—you’d run into the bathroom and douse the paper with a cup of water.” Things have improved.
In 1986, McKinney, by then a single parent with two daughters, ended the daily commute from Colbert by moving to Denison. “I was the tourism coordinator then and had events on the weekends, and it was easier to have my daughters close by my workplace. They helped a lot with the events and vowed they’d never do office work, because I would get them to come down and stuff envelopes or help me finish up some project.”
The Denison Chamber still looks after the city’s tourist program. “We feel like they have a lot of faith and confidence in the way we have handled it. We report regularly to the city council, and they approve our budgets in advance. Because of the relationship, they think that we are the best entity to handle the marketing of our community.”
McKinney said that in many cities, the tourism responsibilities have gone back to local chambers after being separate for a while. “The tourists often go to the Chamber first, and often they are just directed somewhere else. It’s better if you can take care of their needs right there.”
Sherry Christie: “Anna was probably the most high-energy person, get the job done person I ever met. She had the stamina to work 15-to-16-hour days and still be fresh. I had never been around someone with that sort of work ethic. I was on the Chamber board in the early 90s, and that’s when I realized that she basically ran everything that had to do with tourism. It was a period when downtown was trying to revive, trying to decide what to do with the serpentine for the hundredth time. I saw a lot of egos—if that is wanting to be places and do things to advance or move up the ranks. Anna didn’t have one.”
As small towns become small cities, the duties and functions of the Chambers of Commerce often change. In both Denison and Sherman, separate, taxpayer-funded entities have taken up the job of economic development, and in Sherman, the city also took over the tourist office. In Denison, the changes have played out differently.
“Initially the Denison Development Alliance stayed in our office. Even today, they are next door, and that was by design because they felt the need to be next door to the Chamber. They still use our meeting room, and we work very closely on projects,” said McKinney. “We are fortunate in Denison that we look at ourselves as a team.”
During her time with the Denison Chamber, McKinney completed a six-year program offered by the US Chamber of Commerce Institute of Organization Management and earned her certification for Organization Management from in 1989. She had worked for five different Chamber presidents, all men. “I trained them all,” she said, “and I finally told the board, ‘I’m not going to train any more. When the next one leaves, I’m leaving too.’” The overlooked woman in the good ol’ boy world had taken a stand.
The timing was right. The Chamber was transferring the economic development duties from the Chamber to the newly created and independent Industrial Foundation, precursor to the Alliance. The Chamber president took the job as the foundation’s head, and the Chamber board turned to McKinney to take his place.
Sherry Christie: “I would call Anna a woman before her time. She was working in a male- dominated profession. I never heard her complain. She worked with the biggest leaders in Denison very effectively. I don’t think there was a person on that board who didn’t realize what Anna was worth.”
“They had started the interview process for a new Chamber president, and then they asked me,” said McKinney. “They had never asked me before.”
Why? McKinney hesitated before addressing that question and finally said, “It was a man’s world in the Chamber business at that time. They just never…” The comment trailed off, unfinished.
“The first job I had was to train the new exec. I took him around to meet people, showed him how things worked, went over the programs. I knew everything about the job. I had filled in on two occasions when they were between Chamber presidents, so obviously, I was very capable of doing it, but they never offered me that position.”
If there was a hint of disappointment in that last statement, there was a hint of irony in the next. “And then they came to me. There was no controversy. I think there was only a feeling of ‘We don’t know why we didn’t do this before.’”
McKinney came to her new position with definite ideas about what the job required and what needed to change. “There are certifications you can get to take on this position, but typically, people started working for a chamber in college and loved it. You have to be a very giving person to do this job because a lot is expected of you. You’re expected to be everywhere, do everything, know everything, so you really have to believe in what you are doing. And you have to be well organized.” Without realizing it, Anna McKinney had described herself.
As for changes, “When I came to work here it was probably a year before I met the twenty or so people who ran things. The Chamber board, the committee chairmen, the committee members were a very close-knit group, and that was not good. We were known as very much a clique, and it was hard to get in with the Chamber,” McKinney recalled.
“That’s not what a Chamber is all about. It’s about community and community involvement. One of the things I feel good about is helping to change that image, and I think that now we are well known to be a friendly Chamber.
“Our strength in Denison is our people. We are really lucky here, because while we don’t have a big budget, we have big hearts and people who are willing to volunteer their time and their talents to make things happen. We don’t wait for things to happen. We just do it.”
When McKinney moved to the president’s office, she got the title to go with the experience, the background and the personality she had honed since her first day on the job. What she did not get was a salary commensurate with her talents.
An organizational chart of the Chamber and the Industrial Development Foundation from shortly after she took over the Chamber shows McKinney as Chamber president, with lines and boxes spreading out under her name that would rival those of a mechanized infantry division. There are committees and subcommittees, 49 boxes in all, plus affiliated groups, all tracing back to Anna McKinney. There are only two boxes under the top name on the other side. Penciled in are the top salaries: Industrial Development $90,000, Chamber $29,000. It was still a man’s world.
Sherry Christie: “The Foundation president had moved on, and for six months after her surgery, Anna carried the whole thing. Two months after the surgery she went to a trade show in New York. I was horrified that there was that much discrepancy in pay for someone who has that much responsibility. Anna was the backbone of the Chamber. It was a time of feminism, but feminism had not got to Denison, and it had not got to the pay check.”
Christie was no longer on the Chamber board, but she went to work to rectify what she saw as an injustice. She opened eyes, made her case, and the board agreed. McKinney’s salary now better reflects her worth, although for all she brings to the job, full compensation would not be possible.
But the job and Denison mean more to Anna McKinney than just a paycheck, and at last, after so many years, the things she brings to her community are becoming universally recognized and appreciated. On October 29, 2007, the Denison Chamber of Commerce affixed a plaque near the front door of the Chamber building. It is now the “Anna and Roy McKinney Building.”
A shorter drive to work was not the only thing Anna McKinney got when she moved from Colbert to Denison in 1986. She got a new family.
In 1988, she married Roy McKinney, a Denison insurance man, and the new family, now bigger by Roy’s two sons, moved to a home on Lake Texoma, and another piece of the puzzle that is life fit into place. It was a good fit too.
“He was a fine person,” said McKinney. “We loved to travel. Two years ago we took a cruise to Greece, and I think that was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I’m going back.”
For the woman from Colbert, the chance to travel to other parts of the world has been a rewarding experience. “One thing that struck me was how beautiful Barcelona, Spain, is. The people are friendly and the city is just spectacular. The markets, that’s something in other countries that is amazing to me. I’d never seen anything like the fresh produce, the fish, fruits and vegetables I’d never heard of. It was amazing.”
Why the big interest in markets? “I love to cook,” McKinney said. “It’s just homestyle cooking, but I love to use the grill. That’s sort of a trademark at our house. And desserts. I love to make desserts. With my parents, I make candy every year during the holidays. It’s a regular family production. My daughters are involved and my sister comes to help.”
McKinney’s father is the pecan man. He has ten acres of pecan trees, and after the harvest, he goes to work. “Daddy shells the pecans and gets them ready for whatever we are going to make. We usually make five different kinds of candy and have a great time doing it. We usually do it at least twice during the holiday season.” If a sudden sugar attack comes over you next holiday season, drop by the Denison Chamber of Commerce office. You will probably find a fix for your craving.
The candy is dandy, but McKinney’s signature dish is a dark secret. “Chocolate pie,” she said. “I make a great chocolate pie. When my seven-year-old granddaughter comes from Dallas, she wants ‘Nana’s chocolate pie’. She likes it so much she even eats the crust.”
A granddaughter who eats the crusts, that is the kind of success to round off an already abundant and blessed life. Things were coming around, falling into place for Anna McKinney, and then… Another of those achingly difficult “thens.”
In the fall of 2006, doctors found that Roy McKinney had pancreatic cancer. For Anna, there had been hope, for Roy there was none. “It was much harder for me with Roy’s illness, because we knew from day one it was terminal,” she said.
“It was much harder to deal with than my situation, because life was great; we had our future planned. We were going to travel more. We thought we had our life falling into place. And then overnight it changed. We just couldn’t believe what the doctors were telling us, but at the same time… There was nothing to do. It is so fast.
“He did chemotherapy with the understanding that it was not a cure, but it might help with the pain management. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. I would like to think I would have the strength he had.”
“I think that overall I stayed strong because that’s what he wanted me to be, to be strong for him and for our four kids. But it was the most devastating thing I’ve ever dealt with. I think we were closer than most couples. We were each other’s anchor.”
Sherry Christie: “I think only their closest friends know how close they were. She took care of him, saw that everything he needed was there. He never went in the hospital. She took care of him the way she took care of the Chamber all these years. Anna has never been first, in her thoughts, in her actions, in anything else. It’s just not the way she lives her life. She is amazing.”
Four months, they had four more months. Roy McKinney went to work each morning until three days before he died, at home, on March 1, 2007.
“I walk into the house sometimes and find myself starting to ask a question, ask for his advice. He was my sounding board. We had 19 years that most people never have. We had 19 years where we laughed and had a great time, and shared. I’m so thankful that what we had was the best.
“What I tried to do when I had cancer, what I tried to do with Roy’s illness, what I try to do on my job is find the positive. It’s not always easy, but that’s the way I am. What’s important is family and friends and sharing and giving back. You give back to yourself when you give to others.” And with Anna McKinney, the giving never seems to end.
It has been a year since Roy died; a year since Anna did as she had done before. “I put a smile on my face and came back to work. She made that trip back to Greece last fall, and there has been another Christmas parade and another regatta and—well, there are all those balls to keep bouncing.
Denison Chamber of Commerce
313 W. Woodard Steet
PO Box 325, Denison, TX 75021