McKinnis quietly served and cherished Culver

When Esther "Essie" McKinnis passed away June 5, Culver lost a quiet but prevalent community servant who helped weave together a variety of aspects of her community -- and earned the endearment and respect of many in the process.

Born in 1932 and a 1950 graduate of Pine Village High School near Lafayette, Indiana, she married the late Robert McKinnis shortly after high school. The two lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa prior to their move to Culver in 1956; in the interim, he attended college and served in the Navy from 1936 to 1945.

Rob, speaking to the Pilot News in 1987 on the occasion of his being chosen as grand marshal of the Lake Fest parade, said he asked Essie if he wanted to look for another home in Cedar Rapids or return to Indiana.

"She chose to move back," said Rob, who died in January, 1990, "so I quit my job, just like that, and we moved. I wasn't too upset about quitting my job because at that time I was a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. I had a wife and a one year- old son at home, but I spent a lot of time on the road."

Many Culver residents may not know that, during the Cedar Rapids days, Essie worked for a CBS affiliated television station, a job sons Scot and P.T. say she enjoyed ("It was very much like the 'Mad Men' environment," says Scot, referring to the popular current TV show).

Rob McKinnis' Culver tenure began at Culver City Drugs, on the west side of South Main Street, though he and Essie planned their stay in Culver to just be "a stopover." Culver City Drugs (later Mr. T's) was indeed a stopover, and Rob worked in Plymouth for a year before returning to Culver in 1962 and purchasing the longstanding Rector's Pharmacy, cementing his family's relationship to the community. Scot and P.T. remember their father's work in the pharmacy keeping him from home for long hours.

By the late 1960s, Essie began taking classes at nearby Ancilla College in Donaldson, at first not with a certain intention towards a particular degree.

"She was so smart," says Andy Vernum, who worked with Essie for years at his clothing store in Culver, and became an inseparable companion and friend in more recent years. "She loved knowledge."

Attending Ancilla, recalls Scot, "was a turning point for her. So much good came out of that place. She always had a special affinity for it. We went there quite a bit and used to go to Midnight Mass and Christmas bazaars."

While at Ancilla, Essie McKinnis also developed her penchant for art (one of her paintings, in fact, was so well-liked by former Governor Otis Bowen that he purchased it for his home; it was later re-purchased at his auction and hangs in Essie's longtime home just north of Culver today). Essie particularly excelled in calligraphy, and her work -- expressed in quotations and ideas which expressed her own beliefs and sentiments -- also adorns her house.

Her Ancilla classes began to lean towards education, and led to her work as a kindergarten assistant for several years at Culver Elementary School, which many of her former students fondly recall. She also developed close friendships with CES teacher Linda Loesch and Priscilla McBeth.

"Part of the fun for her of working over there was those two together," smiles Scot.

By 1968, Clarence Epley had opened Town & Country Package Liquor at a site he developed at the north corner of State Roads 10 and 17 (the site of today's Jamieson's Town & Country Package Liquors), and by 1969, Rob McKinnis had moved his pharmacy to the site, west of the liquor store, which Epley built after inviting him. The notion, says Scot, was that the liquor store's offerings -- since the drug store sold no alcohol, would draw people as would the pharmacy, so both stores benefited each other.

Essie, in fact, worked about a year for Epley at the liquor store.
However, perhaps her best-remembered role would come about due to one of those Providential, unplanned moments.

"We were having lunch at the Corner Tavern," recalls Andy Vernum. "She and Robert came in and we exchanged pleasantries. Billy Herman was working for me and getting ready to go to college. She said, 'Well, you'll have to hire me. I said, 'Sure. You're kidding, right?' It was unheard of to put a woman in there; it was a man's haunt. It's funny. I said, 'Come in and let's talk about it.'"

The "man's haunt" in question, of course, was Andy's at 111 South Main, which was continuing a then-50-year old tradition started by Mitchell and Stabenow Clothiers of a quality men's clothiers in Culver (women's clothing has been added and the tradition continues today as Fisher and Co.).

Vernum agreed to give Essie a try, but not everyone was as positive about the "liberation" of Andy's as he was.

"The old man who worked for me, Frank Henderson, was there and I said, 'There's our new part-time worker.' He said, 'You'd better find somebody to do these old men's pants. I never worked next to a woman and I won't start now.' I just said, 'She may not like it; let's see how it goes.'"

Essie started in doing light duty, recalls Vernum, and Henderson said nothing. When it was time to go home, he finally broke the silence.

"(Henderson) said, 'Well, that skinny flint really does cut a wide swath,'" chuckles Vernum, recalling the moment. "I said, 'What does that mean?' He said, 'She's pretty good. She's going to work out just fine.' She had charmed him. He treated her like a queen from that day on!"

The arrival in 1974 of part of the Hook's pharmacy chain to Culver eventually forced a change in how local pharmacies did business.

McKinnis partnered with former competitor Ron Tusing, or Mr. T's, and the two opened a joint drug store on Academy Road in 1977. The partnership was not only a commercially beneficial venture, but also gave both pharmacists some much-needed relief in their daily responsibilities, Scot points out.

According to P.T. and Scot, their mother's involvement with civic activities in Culver really took off when she began her work at Andy's. This included, as the years went by, volunteering for Meals on Wheels, REAL Meals, the Culver Chamber of Commerce, Culver's Kiwanis Club (she was named Kiwanian of the Year during the local club's early years), and a host of other efforts.

"Quiet generosity was her way," Scot recalls. "She would take old coats and clothes and sew dog clothes. I didn't know until after her death that she paid for the baptismal font at St. Mary's (Catholic Church). Robbie (Scot's son) was baptized in a salad bowl! She did the food baskets for Kiwanians at Thanksgiving. the Gift of Warmth film festival. She just participated and made sure she got in on everything."

Vernum adds that Essie put her creativity to good use in coming up with ideas in the community, and "didn't ever think things were too much of a bother."

She even, at one point, attended clown school!

"She'd say, 'I think I'll try that and this,'" Vernum adds.
After Robert McKinnis' death in 1990, and the death of Andy Vernum's wife Joan, Vernum and Essie's children were happy to see their respective parents find companionship in each other. And besides, adds Vernum, her work at Andy's was "a career job;" she was there until the business was sold in 1994, and "how can you stop seeing each other after all those days together?"

When Scot's children came along, Essie McKinnis became "an amazing grandmother," he says, including buying the children a pony named Blackjack.

"She wanted them to love horses like she did. With horses you either get the fever or you don't, and none of my kids did. She said she'd finally cancel the subscription to 'Young Rider' magazine! But the creativity she had in the store (Andy's), she transferred to the grandkids."

More recently, says Scot, "She met her health challenges with privacy and dignity and without complaint, and she led a full life."
Essie McKinnis, say her children, loved her family, her horse -- and, says P.T., "She loved Culver."

And through over 50 years of change and chance, the Culver community benefited from that love.

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