The tributes, photos and memories of Pat “Captain” McKinley flooded our news feeds the past week and it was a joy to stop and read each one. It was a who’s who of Wellsville.
On April 12, it was time to start celebrating his life. Something happened that I have rarely seen in my years of covering jaded and cynical politics. An elected official moved to tears at a proclamation ceremony of someone alive. Wellsville Mayor Randy Shayler read a proclamation making April 12 Patrick J. “Captain” McKinley Day in Wellsville, but also changing the name of a designated driver to a “Designated Captain.”
He looked down at Pat, who was holding his award in his wheelchair and Shayler fought back tears saying “as soon as you get strong enough to get out of this and drive, and I know you will, we need you back out there.”
Pat fought, but passed away May 4 at the age of 60.
The Captain wasn’t always Captain. However, he was another person who led a simple life as a simple person and rose to icon status in Wellsville. It’s what makes Wellsville a special place. A place where a village will knight someone others towns and cities would not. A village where a big heart and a passion to volunteer will get you lifetime protection from everyone and anyone.
It’s easy to see how Pat could have been lost in the shuffle. Born into a large family and son of the police chief, he had the bug to join the ranks of the volunteer fire service. An Emerald, of course. He was known for his volunteer work. For his support of Immaculate Conception School and the different service and veterans clubs.
However, in 2006, it all changed. Andrew Harris, who owned Better Days at the time, was pulled over driving 20 MPH in a 55 MPH zone with his windshield wipers on for no apparent reason. He was issued a DWI citation and knew he had to make some changes.
It’s not often the owner or publisher of a news site will push a columnist into writing about an incident like that, especially 15 years later, but Andrew knew in order for me to tell the story, you have to tell the story.
Before he had to surrender his license, Andrew was driving on Main Street to Better Days when he saw Pat in his usual spot, in front of the fire hall, listening to stories of people who did good things, and stories of people who did bad things. The latter always received the same response, “What an idiot.”
On cue as those words came out of his mouth, Harris pulled in and asked McKinley if he wanted a part-time job as his driver. Someone to get him to work and get him home. He said yes. A few days later, Andrew gave him a hat and said it looked like a Captain hat, and called him Captain. The name stuck.
Since Andrew didn’t need a ride until the bar closed, Captain, who enjoyed life over alcohol, would start giving people rides from Better Days to last call at PJ’s Pub or JB’s. If he really liked you, you could get a ride home.
Harris, who also doesn’t show emotion, paused and said, “He became part of my family. We realized we are both of the ICS family, our dad’s and grandparents were good buddies and part of the Hook and Ladder Company.”
In 2012 when Andrew got out of the business, Captain stayed in the business. Thanks to the Wellsville Country Club and the Joyce family, Captain had a larger, safe vehicle to help people safely get home. DWI’s went down, crashes went down. Funerals went down.
Captain would get honored, and he kept giving rides. He had 72 unanswered texts on his flip phone because the only way you could get a ride was to call him. And what a treat that was for the rest of us. Nothing like an AC/DC ring-back tone to put a smile on your face.
Captain took his responsibility very seriously. He didn’t have a boss. His board of directors were the people in his vehicle getting a ride home. And minutes later, that “board” changed and he had a new group to focus on.
Captain also had his fun side and he helped me pull off a bet once that made us each $50. One Thursday night at the American Legion as the last call was repeated several times, the few and the proud left at the bar wanted food, and no one was craving an APlus roller dog. So I told them we could get fresh pizza delivered. I was told there was no pizza delivery in Wellsville at 1 a.m. so the five remaining all put a $20 bill on the bar.
I made the phone call. For the first time ever, Captain gave a ride to no one. But he did drive to Crosby’s in Belmont and delivered two, hot, delicious large pepperoni pizzas to the legion. We proved there was indeed 24-hour pizza delivery in Wellsville. Captain pocketed his fee, his $50 tip, a Pepsi and two slices. We laughed about this for years.
As I think of what the mayor said, it hurts to know he won’t be giving one of us that last ride. But for 15 years, a new generation got to know Captain. And not just a new generation, but a new population. A population who he would not have got to know outside the fire department and church.
He made being a designated driver cool. He made people treat others better. And because of that, he made a difference and made Wellsville a better place to live.
(John Anderson was a reporter and editor for the Wellsville Daily Reporter and Olean Times Herald from 1992 to 2016)