Jacquelyn McGee — a former star athlete, outstanding teacher and the first woman to run a large urban high school in Texas — was losing steam by mid-May.
"She has been on a fairly steady decline over the last four months," McGee’s adoring niece, Susan Caldwell, told me then. "She doesn’t have the human touch of the people she loves. She is blind, in bed, in hospice."
Would it make sense, if possible, to interview McGee, by phone? After all, she blazed community trails and would be recognized by thousands of former students and friends.
Caldwell and I exchanged a long series of messages trying to make it happen. McGee’s health, however, took a steep dive in late May.
Not unexpectedly, on June 4, her obituary ran in the American-Statesman.
"Jacquelyn Ann McGee, retired principal of Stephen F. Austin High School, died Tuesday, June 2, 2020."
Although the paid obituary, written by McGee and her niece, Susan Lynette Caldwell, was among the most beautiful I’ve read in years, it did not contain all the background on McGee, nor did it come with the fantastic family photos that Caldwell had already shared with me.
Hence, this story.
East Austin girl
Born May 2, 1929, to George Cleveland McGee and Annette Jackson McGee, "Jackie" McGee was the third of four daughters. Her father worked as an accountant for the MKT railroad and her mother ran the family-owned store, which was attached to their East Austin house. She grew up helping her parents in McGee's Grocery, on Canterbury Street across from the moonlight tower in what is now the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood.
"Tall, dark eyed, intelligent, athletic and funny, Jackie loved books, music and writing songs," Caldwell said in May. "In second grade, Jackie wrote the school song for Metz Elementary. It was her paean to her love of education, which became her lifelong quest."
On Canterbury Street during the 1930s, McGee’s neighbors would have been Anglo, German, Scottish, Swedish, Chinese, Lebanese and Latino. The area become predominately Latino after World War II and is changing once again.
"She was a team leader of the local kids inventing games and contests, riding her bicycle with cards in her wheel spokes and basically, living large," Caldwell said. "She pitched fastball for the all-girls team sponsored by McGee’s Grocery and competed statewide."
The promising athlete and scholar graduated from, in turn, Metz Elementary School, Allan Junior High School, Austin High School and the University of Texas with honors.
She began her teaching career in 1952 back at Allan, when it was in "Old Red," an imposing brick building in a former city square where the First Baptist Church now rises at Ninth and Trinity streets.
When the Allan building was destroyed by fire, the students and faculties of Allan and University junior highs were called upon to split sessions on the UJH building, which now houses UT’s School of Social Work in between Royal Memorial Stadium and the Jamail Texas Swimming Center.
When the new semester began, the district assigned McGee to Austin High School, then located on Rio Grande Street, as an English teacher.
In 1960, McGee was hired as chairwoman of the English department at Albert Sidney Johnston High School, newly opened in East Austin not far from the Colorado River. There she wrote the school song, "Loyal Hearts," and the fight song, "Fighting Rams." She sponsored the yearbook, school newspaper, National Honor Society and student council while also teaching journalism — her teams won state competitions.
Named for a military leader who fought with the Texian Army during the Texas Revolution and who also served in the U.S. and Confederate armed forces, Johnston was dedicated mostly to Black and Latino students. It later housed the Liberal Arts Academy, and in 2008, Johnston was closed under the state’s new accountability system, then was reconstituted as Eastside Memorial High School.
While Austin schools were being slowly desegregated in the early 1960s, an all-white school board named three large new high schools for Confederates. That unsuitability — a mockery of the modern civil rights movement then on the verge of some of its most important legislative and judicial achievements — did not go unnoticed at the time.
Writing for the American-Statesman, reporter Anita Brewer asked: "Some Austinites are perplexed about this man, Johnston. Just who was this fellow? Why was he important enough for the Austin Board of Education and the future students of Austin’s new eastside high school to scuttle a perfectly good name like 'Riverside' to name the school for Johnston?"
Despite this, McGee loved working with students, some of whom were challenged by poverty and family troubles.
"Johnston became a springboard for many of those students," Caldwell said in May. "She was well loved and still receives correspondence from students and teachers who sing her praises. She was named dean of women, then dean of students, where she continued to work her magic lifting those students up to the opportunities that seemed impossible."
An outdoorsy life
McGee, by this time a young adult, remained active and outdoorsy. She bought some lake property on Pool Canyon Road when Lake Travis was in flood stage in 1957 and, in 1960, built a A-frame home with an attached two-bedroom house, a boat dock and swimming dock for her nieces and nephews.
She called it "Goo's View."
"We lived ‘the good life’ on Lake Travis, waterskiing, sailing, horseback riding and whiling away our summers with Aunt Jackie," Caldwell said. "She empowered us to drive the boat, pulling each other skiing as kids. We learned to sail, swim with our ’ski belts’— always — and she expected us to be good citizens in return."
Meanwhile, McGee transcribed songs into her own stylized songbooks with four simple chords, which she provided as a guide for playing guitar, percussion and singing harmony.
"She often looks back and says, ‘Those were the days’ and ‘It really doesn’t get any better than that,’" Caldwell said in May. "Each summer, she would invite students out for a day on Lake Travis and delight them with all with her love of nature, music, lake life and the written word."
In the next step in her remarkable career, McGee was promoted to vice principal of Porter Junior High School. She returned to UT to earn her masters degree in education. And in 1974, McGee was appointed principal of Lamar Junior High School.
When the school district decided to build a new Austin High School campus along what was then called Town Lake in 1975, the school district drafted McGee as principal.
"She broke the good ol’ boy network with a smile," Caldwell said, "and pursued an agenda to create a nationally recognized high school by personally selecting teachers and administrators who modeled excellence."
A highlight in her professional career came when the U.S. Department of Education named Austin High School as one of only 40 "Outstanding High Schools in the United States," one of only two high schools in the state of Texas so designated.
When Austin High built its performing arts center, it was named for McGee. There each year, an annual dedication day recognizes "Distinguished Graduates" and "Honored Faculty" as they are inducted into the Austin High Hall of Honor.
She was not done. The school district hired McGee as a special consultant to oversee under-performing schools and later she collaborated to reorganize failing schools, nationally. She served on numerous professional and nonprofit boards.
When she reached her late 50s, McGee was diagnosed with macular degeneration and so this incredibly active woman retired. Undeterred, she studied at the School for the Blind and learned braille, then acquired the latest vision enhancement computer programs and monitors to see and write once more.
She never married.
"Turned a couple of offers down over the years," Caldwell said. "She felt that her career would be diminished. She had big goals and no suitable match. She was happy. Diamond in the rough."
McGee was, however, rarely without something to do.
"She was a day trader and always had a love of investing in and improving real estate," Caldwell said. "She had a great number of friends and coworkers that she loved to laugh and travel with."
Caldwell: "Wherever she goes, someone has a story about Jackie."