A community is mourning the loss of a woman with a big personality and an even bigger heart. Wendy McKinney, who owned Burnham Drugs with her beloved husband, John McKinney, died Tuesday.
McKinney’s employees saw her generosity firsthand. But she also helped many people anonymously, feeling blessed that her own family had a comfortable life built on hard work.
John McKinney is still trying to grasp the loss. It happened so fast. McKinney went to market in Atlanta in March to buy wares for their seven drug stores. She was hoarse and coughing. On April 4, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She was 55.
He knew his wife was loved, but her death has shown him just how much.
“The outpouring of love for Wendy has just been completely overwhelming,” he said. “I had no idea how many people she touched so deeply.”
She raised three sons, doted on four grandchildren who called her “Gigi” (because she was just too young to be called Grandma when the first one came along), and was a second mom to many of the young ladies who worked in her stores over the years.
Tributes from friends who loved her have been appearing on Facebook since her death.
The McKinneys attended pharmacy school at the University of Mississippi and lived in the same apartment complex, but they didn’t meet until John McKinney took the empty chair next to her in class in January 1983, after Christmas break.
“The first day of classes, there was an empty seat next to her,” he said. “I sat down beside her and never got up.”
A Christmas miracle
They married eight months later and had their first son, William Alexander, before they left Oxford, where they worked four jobs between them and took out student loans for their educations. They were, John McKinney said, “rolling-pennies-for-gas-money broke.”
After graduation in 1986, the young family settled in John McKinney’s hometown of Meridian. The opportunity to buy Burnham came in 1991.
The McKinneys fit right into the community, said Allen Lane, whose father co-owned Burnham with another pharmacist and sold it to the McKinneys. Lane, also a pharmacist, works for the McKinneys at Burnham Vital Care, which provides medical services in Moss Point.
John McKinney says the community adopted them. When they pulled up with a moving truck, an ice chest filled with food and drinks sat out front.
“The people of Moss Point have been very good to us,” he said. “They have just taken us into their arms and hearts, black or white, it doesn't matter.”
The McKinneys wanted another child, but were unable to conceive. They decided to adopt.
The phone rang Christmas morning of 1993 with news of a baby boy available for adoption. An attorney called in the afternoon to draw up papers. Their oldest son came up with their second baby’s first name, Christopher, to signify Christmas. They added Michael as the middle name. Christopher Michael, their Christmas miracle, joined the family.
Surprisingly, Wendy McKinney found out in 1998 that she was pregnant. Their third son, John Franklin, was 3 1/2 months premature. He weighed less than two pounds. Doctors predicted major health problems, including blindness and cerebral palsy. But John Franklin is a relatively healthy 19-year-old today. He just finished his freshman year at Ole Miss.
One of Wendy McKinney’s favorite activities in life was supporting her Rebels. The McKinneys loved to spend time at their home in Oxford, attending Ole Miss football and baseball games. Wendy McKinney, a fashion-conscious woman, always took extra care in dressing for those games.
Ice cream first
She was in her glory during the holiday season. She worked as a pharmacist for years, but found her gift as a decorator and merchandise buyer for the stores. For 25 years straight, she went to a wholesale market twice a year in Atlanta.
For the holidays, she decked out the original Burnham in Moss Point with seven or eight trees, each with its own theme. An archway stood inside the door of this Christmas wonderland. Each year, she hosted an open house with food.
“Everything had to be perfect,” store manager Sandy Lucas said. Not a speck of dust was in sight, and that was a pretty big achievement in an older building, she said.
McKinney’s friends will never forget her love of children. She would sit down on the floor to visit and play with them.
“She would do almost anything in the world for a child,” Lucas said. “She connected with children more than anything in this world. She could not stand to see a sad child. She considered her boys her greatest achievement.
“She was so proud of each one of them. Her grandchildren were her crown jewels. Everything she did, she had them in mind.”
The McKinneys’ employees say they are the best bosses imaginable. Each year, the employees bought the McKinneys a gift. But as the business grew, the couple asked that the employees instead pool their money to buy Christmas gifts for children. The McKinneys matched the amount, and then some.
Their holiday parties became occasions of great joy, with gifts for needy children piled high. The McKinneys also bought age-appropriate gifts for the employees’ children. We’re not talking coloring books, here, but iPods and such.
They threw big Christmas parties with an ice cream bar for the children and dinner. “We strongly encourage the parents to let children eat ice cream first,” John McKinney said. “It's one time a year. It's not going to hurt.”
A true fairy tale
There was something else the McKinneys did that they mostly kept to themselves. Now that his wife is gone, John McKinney decided to share. They went to Wal-Mart each year before final payments were due on lawaways and consulted with employees there to pay off amounts owed.
The McKinneys figured parents could use help if they were still trying to pay off their childrens’ toys. In some cases, Wendy McKinney bought extra toys.
An email from a professor in the Ole Miss pharmacy school was one of the many memories and condolences sent this week to John McKinney. Wendy McKinney had been at the school a few years back, possibly for a committee meeting. The professor was telling her about a single mother too broke to finish pharmacy school.
Wendy McKinney wrote a check on the spot, insisting on anonymity.
Although his heart is broken, John McKinney welcomed the opportunity to talk about his wife. He is so proud, he said, of the life she lived.
They always seemed to be in tune.
“We had the fairy tale romance,” he said, “but it was real.”
Their employees are heartbroken, too.
Burnham accounting manager, Marie Harkey, who has worked for the couple for 16 years, said, “I've always heard that those we love never leave us and she will truly always remain with us. I'll think about her every day. She won't be forgotten.”