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Borderlands: Robert E. McKee: From Rags to Riches to Philanthropy 30 (2012-2013)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Robert E. McKee: From Rags to Riches to Philanthropy

Article first published in Vol. 30, 2012-2013

Research by Mayra A. De La Cruz and Kim Wilson

Robert E. McKee entered the world when horses were giving way to the railroad. He saw automobiles and airplanes take over transportation in the United States, although he preferred to travel by train. He became one of the leading builders in the nation and helped shaped skylines of major cities. He even had a large part in bringing in the atomic age and ending World War II. Though he could have lived anywhere, he chose El Paso and maintained the headquarters of his company here.

Born in Chicago on June 15, 1889, Robert Eugene McKee was the youngest of four children born to James and Alice Cleve McKee. His father was a structural engineer who helped design the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, according to Leon Metz in his biography entitled Robert E. McKee: Master Builder. The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, but the elder McKee was killed in a mule-drawn wagon accident when Eugene was only 10 years old. The economic condition of his family changed radically upon his father’s death, and Eugene, as he was known to family and friends, sold rags, bones and scrap metal that he salvaged in order to help support the family. Through persistence, he graduated from the Manual Training School of Washington University.


Image caption:  Robert E. McKee.  Photo courtesy of the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation Archives.

In 1907, he left St. Louis to live on his Uncle Bernard “Bud” Cleve’s ranch in Elk, New Mexico, 35 miles east of Cloudcroft. But ranching and farming were not for him. He came to El Paso in late 1908 and after briefly working with the Madera Box and Lumber Company, which made apple boxes for his uncle, he took a job with the El Paso City Engineering Department as a draftsman in 1909.

McKee married Gladys Evelyn Woods on September 20, 1911, and together they had eight children. Evie, as McKee called her, had led an exciting life even before meeting McKee, according to Metz. The daughter of a coffee plantation manager in Guatemala, Woods and her family had to escape revolution, earthquakes and volcanoes, eventually arriving in San Francisco, Calif. Shortly after their arrival, the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire struck the city, with the Woods family losing all their worldly goods. They made their way to Mexico, living in Chihuahua briefly before moving to El Paso. Her mother opened a boarding house at which Evelyn met McKee. The couple married when she was 18 and McKee was 22.

In 1912, McKee departed the city engineer’s office, working for the El Paso Milling Company until 1914, when he decided to become an independent contractor. Metz wrote, “Robert Eugene McKee decided he could acquire more independence, more money and less pain by working for himself.” McKee began his firm in a corrugated metal building near the Toltec Building in downtown El Paso. He shortened the name of his business to R. E. McKee: General Contractor since the building was too small for the lettering of his full name to fit on the front. His first contract was to remodel the Herald Building which had been damaged by fire in 1913. This building was later replaced by the Plaza Theater.

In 1920, McKee moved his headquarters to a new building he constructed on Texas Street. This remained his El Paso headquarters for the rest of his life. Metz wrote that more than $1 million dollars of building was done in the first seven years that R. E. McKee was in business. The company extended operations into New Mexico, Arizona and east Texas.


Image caption:  Gladys Evelyn. McKee. Photo courtesy of the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation Archives.

McKee started building a new home in 1921 at 2630 Richmond for his family just up the street from their first house in the Highland Park addition. The 9,000-square¬foot house, built for $75,000, was three stories high with a three-car garage, one of the largest residences in El Paso at the time. This house would remain the McKee home until his death. As they raised a houseful of children, the McKees pursued personal activities as well. Robert McKee enjoyed hiking in the mountains and playing tennis, building a court at his home. He planted a vegetable garden on the grounds, keeping it always neat and tidy. McKee also worked on his small farm in Mesquite.

Evelyn Woods McKee was fluent in Spanish, English, French and several Indian dialects and maintained Guatemalan, Danish and American citizenships. She was named El Paso’s Mother of the Year in 1942 and was active in church work at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church. She served on the board of directors of the YWCA and worked with the El Paso Woman’s Club.

In 1921, according to Metz, McKee received two of his largest paying contracts at the time: the Scottish Rite Temple downtown and the El Paso Country Club in the Upper Valley, two impressive buildings still in use today. McKee’s company built many different types of projects, from houses and apartments, schools, hospitals, hotels, office buildings, manufacturing plants, highways, bridges, and dams, to many of the buildings at the Grand Canyon, the Veterans Hospital and houses in Fort Bayard, N. M. and so much more. Some of the schools that he built here in El Paso were Cathedral High School, Crockett Elementary and Austin High School, whose football stadium is named in his honor. 


Image caption: Robert E. McKee with young sons Phillip, left, and Louis, right.   Photo courtesy of the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation Archives.

He also built many of the buildings at the University of Texas at El Paso and several other universities including New Mexico State University, the University of Texas, Southern Methodist University and the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio. McKee built the El Paso Natural Gas Company building which has been called the Blue Flame Building, because of the weather beacon on the roof. He also built numerous hospitals across the country including Providence and Thomason Hospital (now known as University Medical Center) in El Paso, the Naval Hospital in San Diego, the University of California Medical Center in Los Angeles and the Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, to name just a few. The company also built numerous government buildings including post offices, Veterans Administration hospitals, and courthouses and prisons.

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Metz wrote in his book that McKee was responsible for building most of Hickam Field in Honolulu, Hawaii, before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. Many of the buildings were destroyed during the bombing. After this, the company took Army contracts for large military installations in Panama within the Canal Zone. Most of the contracts that the company had during World War II were for the government and military, and at one time McKee had 42,000 people working for him.

The El Paso Herald-Post reported on October 21, 1964, that one of McKee’s largest contracts, which totaled over $100 million, was the Los Alamos Atomic Energy Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Herald-Post said that “he built most of the laboratories, testing sites, dormitories and houses at Los Alamos.” The Manhattan Project developed the atomic bomb which was tested at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945, and dropped the next month on Hiroshima, Japan, ending World War II. At the beginning of the project, he and his men did not know the purpose of the venture. The Herald-Post wrote that Dr. J. R. Oppenheimer, director of the project, had said that “without McKee’s help the U.S. might not have won the race against time and the war against the Axis.”


Image caption:  Former McKee home as it appears today.  Photo by Kim Wilson.

McKee’s company was awarded the Army-Navy “E” for Excellence by the United States government in 1945, an honor that “went only to the top five percent of firms throughout the nation whose war production had been judged superior.” McKee also constructed six buildings at White Sands Missile Range, receiving an honorary commission as colonel and aide-de-camp to the New Mexico governor in 1947. McKee constructed several buildings at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, including the iconic chapel.

On February 1, 1973, the El Paso Herald-Post reported that Robert E. McKee, Inc., which came to be known as REMCON, had “literally laid the foundations” for most of El Paso’s development. The Herald-Post listed some of the major buildings that were completed by McKee, including the S. H. Kress Building, (McKee built numerous Kress buildings in the Southwest), Bassett Tower, the City-County Building, the Federal Court House, the El Paso Hilton Hotel (now the Plaza Hotel), the Bataan Memorial Trainway, which depressed the railroad tracks downtown, El Paso National Bank and the Central YMCA.

McKee was the major contractor for the Los Angeles International Airport in 1959 and his company built the $100  million Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA in 1971. The Herald-Post reported that because of the company’s high requirements for quality both in materials and labor, McKee had a “reputation as one of the most capable and dependable construction firms in the nation” and said that company’s slogan was “Where we have built, we are asked to build again.”

""Image caption: Los Angeles International Airport. Photo courtesy of the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation Archives.

McKee had projects in 35 states, from Maine to California, as well as Hawaii and Panama. In addition to the headquarters in El Paso, McKee had offices in Dallas, Los Angeles and Santa Fe. In 1973, the Herald-Post wrote that by 1950, McKee’s company had become the “largest individually owned contracting firm in the United States.”

If there was a secret to his success, McKee himself told reporter Marshall Hail that it was in being organized. He said, “Others have told me that we have the best organization in the United States. Organization and plain hard work. Add to that the fact that we never get discouraged.” Hail also wrote that McKee’s staff liked to work for him and that he sacrificed profit so that he could pay good salaries. “I believe in distribution of profits,” said McKee in a Herald-Post article.

Herman Leibreich in an article for Password , the journal of the El Paso County Historical Society, wrote that McKee “put his money to work not just to enlarge his holdings but to help others. He gave of his money. He gave of his time and he gave of himself.” Leibreich emphasized that McKee practiced the ethics of racial equality “long before our government put it into law.” His company’s “Bill of Rights” appreciated the working man as well as the chairman of the board of a company, and many of his employees worked only for him during their lifetime. Hail wrote in the El Paso Herald-Post that McKee was never selfish and paid his employees out of his own pocket if necessary. He also encouraged them to buy stock in the company when it went public.

In order to share the fruits of his hard work, McKee and his wife Evelyn started the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation as a non­profit charitable organization in 1952 with an initial donation of $40,000 in 1953, according to the foundation’s website. That very year, the foundation awarded $8,962.50 to various groups. Metz stated that in the charter with the state of Texas, the foundation was to be used “for the benefit of educational scholarships, religious needs (primarily Episcopalian), hospitals, medical research, community and civic institutions, youth activities, welfare, rehabilitation and mental health.” The McKee Foundation was instrumental in helping the El Paso Community Foundation get its start, donating $25,000 each year for five years to help establish the organization, according to Metz.


Image caption:  U.S. Airforce Academy.  Photo courtesy of the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation Archives.

The McKees had an impressive collection of Southwestern and Indian Art, knowing many of the artists personally. The McKees helped with the establishment of the El Paso Museum of Art and the procurement of the Samuel H. Kress Collection of paintings through their relationship with the president and art director of the famous collection. The El Paso museum received 57 paintings and two sculptures, dating from the 13th century. It was one of 40 museums and universities in the nation to receive a part of the Kress collection. Metz wrote that in addition to paintings, the McKees collected pottery by Maria Martinez, famous for the “black on black” technique, treasures that McKee displayed in his offices as well as in his home.

McKee stepped down as president of the company on February 1, 1961, little more than a year after his wife Gladys Evelyn McKee died on January 26, 1960. McKee remained chairman of the board. His son, Robert E. Jr., took over as vice-chairman and treasurer, and youngest son Louis, already supervising engineer of the firm, became vice president.

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At the age of 75, Robert Eugene McKee, Sr. died on October 21, 1964. His survivors included his second wife, Mary Grace, six sons, two daughters, 27 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. The family home was donated to the Rehabilitation and Cerebral Palsy Center of El Paso in 1966 and later acquired by various private owners, according to Alex Hinojosa in an article for the El Paso Times.

During his lifetime, McKee was named Outstanding Citizen by the El Paso Realtors, given the Conquistador award in 1960 by the city of El Paso and inducted into the El Paso County Historical Society’s Hall of Honor in 1967. Pepperdine College named him to their Hall of American Builders.  A 32nd degree Scottish Rite Mason, McKee also served as a vestryman at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, where the McKee Chapel was built in his honor. He was active on the boards of the El Paso Museum and the Southwestern Children’s Home, two of his major community interests.


Image caption: Scottish Rite Temple. Photo by Kim Wilson.

After McKee’s death, the company continued building, producing the Civic Center and William Beaumont Hospital, the Fox Fine Arts building and the engineering complex on the UTEP campus and many others in El Paso, as well as the Atlantic Richfield Plaza and other buildings in Los Angeles and multiple projects in Dallas and other cities. The company merged with Santa Fe Industries in 1972 and R. E. McKee Inc. moved its headquarters to Dallas. By 1982, only one McKee actively worked with the company, and Santa Fe Industries sold R. E. McKee Contracting Company. According to Metz, the McKee Contracting firm closed on June 30, 1995, and dissolved on December 6, 1996.

Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2012, the McKee Foundation is administered by R. E. McKee’s family, with Louis McKee serving as President and Treasurer of the nonprofit organization. The foundation donates thousands of dollars for scholarships at the University of Texas in Austin and El Paso, New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico. For their work, the McKee family and the Foundation were inducted into the Texas Philanthropy Hall of Fame in 2001.

Robert E. McKee’s company constructed more than 3,000 projects in the United States and Panama. McKee helped to change the face of many cities throughout the nation. As Leon Metz said, “The McKee name will live on, remembered not only in those thousands of buildings, but in the art collection and other interests through which R. E. McKee sought to make the world a better place for those with whom he shared it.”

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Tags: Biography

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