The Living Histories of Athens: Mary McKinney

Mary McKinney and her former student who assisted with the letter project.


Mary McKinney has been a wife, mother, teacher, historian, and life-long learner. Born in Pennsylvania, she has also lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Germany, and now Georgia. She began her undergraduate studies at Denison University, continued at Bowling Green State University, then University of Wisconsin, and finished at Ohio State University.

In the spring of 1959, she was teaching 7th grade at Upper Arlington High School in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio when she assigned her students a task that would become her own project during COVID-19. Her students were complaining about their parents, as 7th graders often do, and she had them write a letter to their adult selves. She promised that she would not read them but that she would mail the letters back to them in 10 years. The 10 years went by and she did as she promised, but 23 of the letters could not be delivered. When they came back, she put them in a cubbyhole in her desk to work on later.

In the meantime, while her husband was in dental school, she obtained her Master of Arts in History at Ohio State and wrote her master’s thesis about health practices on the Oregon Trail. In 1979 she and her husband took their 4 daughters on a trip to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Teton National Park.

While on their trip, one of her daughters interviewed for a job as a lifeguard. She got the job and worked out west for about a year, and her family would visit.  Around this time, her husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness and they decided “that they were going to start doing all the things that they weren’t going to be able to do for the rest of their lives.” He took a sabbatical from work and they moved to the Grand Teton National Park for the summer. She worked for the Grand Teton Lodge Company researching the cabins of Colter Bay Village (which were moved from early homesteads and ranches) and Jenny Lake Lodge. She gave tours of the cabins and the lodge multiple times a week to guests, until her summers in Wyoming were brought to a halt by COVID-19.

19 years later, she retrieved the remaining 23 letters from the cubbyhole in her desk, thinking “I’ll never have more time than this.” With the help of a former student, she has only 7 letters left. Students have reached out after getting their letters 50 years later, asking how they can help and expressing their thanks.

She feels that COVID-19 has not been “anywhere near as hard on old people as it is on young people…a year is a bigger thing for you than it is for me.” She has occupied her year with letter delivery, reading, and online citizen science projects through universe. Her take on life: It’s not so much what happens to you as how you handle what happens to you.

– Interviewed by Paige Chambers

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