Robert Scott McKinnon accomplished a lot in his 84 years on this Earth.
And he wasn’t even done.
Only esophageal cancer stopped him. Beloved competitive swimmer, swim coach, banjo picker, accomplished writer, playwright and high school English teacher at CM Russell High School, who also raised greyhounds, lost a courageous battle with illness last Thursday, July 7th.
“He was working on a radio play about Haunted Aquarium Castle right up until the very end … about three days before he passed,” said Susie McKinnon, his wife of 62 years. “He was at the computer; wanted to do this radio play.
“He never, ever gave up…he was reaching out there to grab the brass ring, I guess.”
The former Suzanne Cook was by his side, buckled in for the entire journey, which began when they met when Bob was producing a one-act play for a pageant at the University of Montana. Their 62-year marriage brought son Christopher and daughter Wendy along for the ride. And yes, they were buttoned up too.
This describes the marriage of Bob and Susie McKinnon. She was all in—including when Bob and his father, Gus, discussed building a pool in their backyard to give swimming lessons.
“Bob and Gus had done a test run at the old Holiday Inn pool (on 10th Avenue South between 14th and 15th Streets) just to see if there would be a market for it,” Susie recalled. “I got into bookselling, enrolling kids because Bob was busy at school and I was an automatic candidate for the job.
“Oh yes, I was on board. I mean, he’s the super swimmer and he coached the age group swim team and was super successful at it, so it just seemed like a natural progression.”
At the time this happened, Bob and Susie were living on Ella Avenue — “just as Carroll Avenue goes into Ella,” Susie said — and we were talking about putting the pool in the backyard there.
“And we thought the neighbors would hate us because of the parking lot,” she added. “It wasn’t going to be a good situation, so we started looking for a property.
“(Former CMR boys basketball coach) Doug Palmer’s wife, Margie, was a real estate agent, and we thought they had just the right property for us, and they came and showed us this property at 1608 Seventh Street South. The rest is history. “
Susie said the property is “remediation in its truest form.” Pasture in front, the house was old… but there was room.
“And we’d raise hounds at the same time,” added Susie. “He was never one to settle for one thing.”
Books and Banjos: An 80-Year Love Affair
Ed McNamee, the current swim coach at both Great Falls High and CMR, returned to Great Falls after Bob retired from coaching both schools in 1989.
“It’s one of my few regrets about being a Great Falls kid,” said Coach Mack, who is entering his third decade coaching the Bison and Rustler boys and girls, between games of Sunday’s matchup between the Great Falls Chargers and the Lethbridge Elks. said. “It was always something legendary.
“Bob put Great Falls on the swimming map in so many ways and levels. From the idea of teaching the two high school programs together. We have always been the model for that. And to be quite honest, I kind of picked up where he left off.”
McKinnon coached the Rustles and Bison teams from 1980-1989, leading the Bison boys to back-to-back state titles in 1981-82, then leading the CMR girls to a co-championship with Missoula Hellgate in 1987. as well as to the crown in 1989. . But his fingerprints are all over Electric City swimmers after five decades of teaching swimming lessons in the backyard pool built by Bob, Gus and a few CMR educators more than 50 years ago.
“I remember very fondly, in 2008, when the Lady Rustlers won their state title, I ran into him and he said, ‘Congratulations, coach,'” McNamee recalled. “I think the biggest thing is knowing that Bob has built this and what he’s done for this city and for the state in swimming, and for him to compliment me like that has always been … both productive and fortunate living in Bob’s shadow.
“Those are big shoulders to stand on … whatever you want to say about it … you’re just trying to make what Bob built better, all the time.”
Great Falls Public Schools athletic director Mike Henneberg swam for the Rustlers after Bob retired from coaching, but he learned to swim there in McKinnon’s backyard pool.
“I learned to swim in his pool and then as a little kid I saw the Guppies team for Gus’s age group,” Henneberg said. “He had retired maybe a year or two before I got to CMR.
“But that pool was a great place to learn to swim,” Henneberg, who swam on Gus’ Guppies age team as a schoolboy, told the Tribune. “I think Bob had a method that was very effective in getting people who maybe were a little bit uncomfortable in the water, comfortable in the water, then going through all the different levels and eventually having the opportunity to join his swimming club, Gus’ Guppy.
“It was a lot of fun because a lot of the kids on that team had the same experience. They learned to swim in his pool and he used that as a little feeder program for the age group program and that fed into the high schools and led to a lot of success.
“I think we’ve had the residual effects in this community as far as swimming goes for generations. We learned to swim in that pool and our kids learned to swim there…my two daughters learned to swim there. It’s such an important life skill, plus it’s a lifelong activity. Bob brought that to the community and then made it grow as he did, it had a huge impact that will be felt for generations.”
Local real estate agent Ryan Pacek and several members of his family—siblings and children—also learned to swim from Bob McKinnon, so Pacek’s fondest memories span several years.
“I think back to when I was a junior age group swimmer for the Guppies, with Bob as our coach,” Pacek said, “and the team was big then; we had over 100 swimmers and Bob was a great coach and a great mentor.
“I’m not going to say he was the friendliest guy around because he was really rough and really scary back then, but looking back he was an amazing coach and just a good guy. He’s like the godfather of swimming because there’s just generations upon generations.
“Grandmothers took lessons from him and their children took lessons and then their grandchildren. And they did it for so long; everybody went to him—not just a select few—but everybody you talk to in Great Falls seems to have gone through that pool at his house.”
Henneberg agreed: “A lot of kids started in Bob McKinnon’s pool.”
A celebration of Bob McKinnon’s life will be held Sunday, August 7th at 1:00 pm at the Mansfield Theater of the Great Falls Civic Center.