2019 Inductee Earl McKee dies weeks away from Woodlake High School Foundation event
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
WOODLAKE – When the residents of Woodlake and Three Rivers gather on May 3 to induct Woodlake High School’s 2019 Hall of Fame class, it will be a celebration of three men who dedicated their lives to education, agriculture, and their community. But only one of the inductees will be in attendance after the recent passing of Earl McKee.
McKee died on April 11 in the only house he has ever called home in Three Rivers. It seems counterintuitive that a cowboy who embodied toughness could have his life ended from a spill off his porch after surviving multiple knee replacements, open heart surgeries, auto accidents, bucking broncos and cattle stampedes. Friends and family took to Facebook to share their stories of the horse riding writer and tuba packing mule packer.
One quote about the 87-year-old summed up the loss for both communities: “Its now truly and shockingly, the end of the line for you here ole cowboy. Rest now. You are set free to ride in the High Sierras. To reunite with your many loved ones who have blazed that path before you.
“You will be missed more then you can possibly imagine. Happy trails dearest pal.”
By the time McKee graduated from Woodlake High School in 1949, he was already an experienced packer spending the summers of his youth riding in the back country with his father as part of the family mule packing business. He was a key member of the small-town Tigers teams that won back-to-back Valley championships in football in 1947 and 1948. He went on to play frosh ball at Fresno State University.
Soon after high school, Earl married his high school sweetheart, Gaynor Hardison. They celebrated their 68th Anniversary in December of 2018. He joined the Three Rivers Lions Club in 1950 and has been a member ever since. Earl received the Tulare County Cattleman of The Year award in 2003 after breeding beef cattle for 55 years.
After college, McKee returned home to Three Rivers and began giving back to his alma mater. He served 12 years on the Woodlake High School Board and during that time, handed diplomas to all three of his own children. He was especially proud of the board’s work with Courtney McCracken to develop a public library and high school swim complex bearing McCracken’s name.
McCracken is one of the many memorable characters that McKee met during his amazing life. He developed quite a knack for remembering names, dates, stories and antidotes and turned them into two novels. In 2013, McKee published his first book of old time memories “Echoes of Blossom Peak” and then in 2016 a second, “Echoes Of Three Rivers.”
If being a football playing cowboy with a knack for writing wasn’t enough, McKee was also a great Western music singer and an even better jazz tuba player. He traveled the world with Three Rivers’ own High Sierra Jazz Band for the last 42 years. McKee’s unexpected death came just a few days before he was set to play at the 46th annual Jazz Affair in Three Rivers.
McKee is one of three inductees into the WHS Hall of Fame this year. He will be joined by Ned Baker, who will also be inducted posthumously, and George Clausen, the surviving member of this year’s class of inductees. The event will be held on Friday, May 3 at the Woodlake Memorial Building, 355 N. Acacia St. in Woodlake. Tickets are $50 per person and can be purchased at www.WoodlakeFoundation.org. All proceeds benefit the WHS Foundation Scholarship Fund.
After graduating from WHS in 1947, Clausen worked in the summers as fumigator to pay his way through college. He began at Visalia College and finished his college studies at UC Berkeley as a Soil Chemistry major.
In 1951, he joined the Armed Forces and became a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. During his 26-year career as a fighter pilot he flew the F-80. F-84, F-86, F-100, F-105, and F-11. He flew in the Vietnam War, including an 8-month tour in Thailand flying 100 missions over North Vietnam where he was the squadron commander. He was awarded two silver stars, three distinguished flying crosses, and 16 air medals among others. While stationed at Ramstein, Germany, he was awarded a Legion of Merit for being the Director of Fighter Operations Air Forces Europe. Another Legion of Merit was awarded for his service as Director of Operations for Headquarters 9th Air Force.
When he retired from the Air Force in 1977 at the rank of Colonel, he brought his family back to the family citrus ranch east of Woodlake where he grew up. He taught soil and plant science as an adjunct professor at College of the Sequoias, has been active in the Lemon Cove Community Church, served as President of the Woodlake Public Cemetery board for over 35 years, and as president of the Kaweah-St. Johns Farmers League. Clausen was also one of the founding members of the Woodlake High School Foundation.
At age 88, George is still active and continues to serve many of the organizations listed above. He is considered one Woodlake’s finest graduates who continues to give his time and talents to his community.
Ned Ferris Baker
Baker graduated from Woodlake High School in 1937 and attended Visalia Junior College (now known as COS) before earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing at the University of California, Berkeley in 1941.
Ned’s commitment to local education began when he was elected the Woodlake Union High School Board of Trustees in 1950. He served five terms over 29 years including 350 regular board meetings, covering 3,500 agenda items and dedicating 700 hours to administering school business. He subsequently served as member and president of the Tulare-County School Boards Association, on California School Boards Association as a representative of Tulare and Kern Counties, and as president of the Tulare County Academic Decathlon committee. Baker served another 30 years on the College of Sequoias Board of Trustees from 1967-1996.
Ned also provided leadership in the citrus business, serving on the board of directors of the Tulare County Lemon Association, as chairman of Agriculture Producers, and as a member of the Navel Orange, Valencia Orange, and Lemon Administrative Committees. In 1976, he was appointed by the governor to represent citrus growers on the State Board of Food and Agriculture. He later became the face and voice of Sunkist Growers through a series of TV and radio commercials broadcast in the U.S. and England.
Ned and his wife, Karyll, were two of the founding members of the St. Clement Anglican Church in Woodlake. Both were active leaders in the ministry of the church, working to build the St. Clement Day Care Center to serve the community. Ned passed away January 24, 2010 at the age of 90, but his legacy lives on in the community he served.