Jennifer McKee

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Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hi. I’m Jennifer. I’m 40 years old. I grew up in Billings — and a little east of Billings. My husband and I have lived in Helena for the last 13 years. We have two kids. Margaret is 8 and brilliant and precise and wonderful. Cormac is 6 and daring and thoughtful and true. They both enjoy a good joke. I am the communications manager for the Montana Lottery — which is ridiculously fun. I live four hours from the place I was born and raised. I live four hours from the places my mother and grandmother where born and raised. Montana is a deep part of my story and my family’s story.

Your photo here is taken in front of Helena’s historic Central School. Tell us about why this location means something to you. 

This place is just so hard. It’s our school, but my son has never been inside of it and my daughter only once — before she was enrolled and before it was declared uninhabitable and evacuated mid-year in an emergency. All we know of this place is the tough, three years that have followed. We are still evacuated.

Central is right downtown and our students have always been diverse. We have five times the district average of homeless students and twice the district average of children with special needs. We are a Title I school with a high percentage of low income students. And we have a magnet special needs program where children from throughout Helena with the most unique educational challenges come. These complicated kids are peers and equals here and I am so proud of that. I would not want my children to have any other kind of education. Cormac and Margaret simply do not notice disability. They don’t notice status. For them, this is just the way people come: in wheelchairs, with autism, wearing sound-dampening headphones. This is just what people are like – and it’s true. I couldn’t teach them that. It’s more than empathy. I will never regret sending our children to this school.

But I really do regret how this school has lingered in doubt and limbo. I regret the strain our inadequate location — 6,000-square-feet smaller than our home school, miles away across a four-lane highway and a working rail yard – has placed on this very fragile group of kids and families. The teachers and staff are leaning so far in to keep it afloat and they’re pulling it off. But it takes a toll: Two-thirds of our teachers have quit since we left this building.

It’s been three years and I still can’t believe it’s happening. I still can’t believe this is what it means to live in downtown Helena and try to send your kids to school.

What makes you feel like you’ve had a successful day?

When I’ve been present for my family. When I’ve done a little something outside. When I’ve gone running — which, although I’m not very good at, I seem to never outright quit. When I’ve talked to a friend. And when I’ve had fun.

Tell us about a woman you admire. 

My grandmother — JoAnn McKee. She is so remarkable, we named our daughter after her, figuring if Margaret JoAnne turned half as good, she’d be all right. My grandmother is 83 and still living in the middle of Montana’s nowhere. She’s on Facebook, so she’ll probably read this and be embarrassed (but hopefully a little pleased!)

Favorite author?

Wallace Stegner. I grew up in Billings where everything is tan. Stegner taught me that tan is beautiful.

What about music? 

I love all the musics. I grew up on 1980s radio country, which is an embarrassment of riches, so I will always sing along to an Alabama song. I like modern country, too. And angsty mopey music. And folk! And electronica — which I can’t even explain.  And Kids Bop, which I’m only a little ashamed to admit.

Where do you most want to travel, but have never been?

Ireland. (I mean, come on, we named our kids Cormac and Margaret!) My great-grandmother was an immigrant. A lot of my family has been back, but we’ve never been.

Describe one of your happiest memories. 

Once you’ve had children, this question just gets impossible. Was it the day I first saw my daughter’s face? Was it the day her brother was born and we realized our family had been missing a piece? It could have just been a flash when both kids were skiing together and my husband and I were watching from the top of the trail and we knew they were making their own adventure. Or was it when we went to Build A Bear and it completely blew their minds?

What do you value most in a friendship?

I’d like to say it’s something grand like loyalty, but let’s be honest: It’s wit. I love being around people who tell good stories and are quick on their feet.

Coffee or tea?

Coffee. Especially Afternoon Coffee.

Introvert or extrovert?

Extrovert. I am never done telling all the stories!

Rural or urban?

Rural. I can’t even drive through Spokane without getting anxious.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs. But an overweight cat is simply irresistible.

Sunrise or sunset?

Sunrise for sure.

Detailed or abstract?

Details. I like making things: making websites. Sewing clothes. Nothing works if the details aren’t right.

Call or text?

TEXT! Don’t call me. I won’t answer.

Fiction or non-fiction?

Non-fiction. I was a newspaper reporter for 13 years and fiction still feels like a snow job.

Salty or Sweet? 

Salt is my love language.

What do you love most about Montana? 

Just all of it. My story and my family story is all over. We have hiked in so many mountains and who doesn’t love mountains? But I love the dry bluffs of Yellowstone County, too, and the ethereal plains of northeast Montana in winter. The people here value different things; we value each other. If we wanted only to be rich, we would have already left. We stay to make something special.

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Opportunities. But not just opportunities to be successful, more the opportunities I’ve enjoyed to have relationships. My mom made an enormous effort to insure that my brother and I had deep relationships with her parents. She made sure we had a relationship with the land we lived on and around. My husband, my family, my friends — I have so many good relationships and I am so grateful for them.

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