ST. PAUL — Mary McKee, a former first lady of Minnesota, died earlier this month at her home in Plymouth. The former wife of the late Gov. Wendell Anderson was 79.
Family members aren’t sure exactly when she died, but she was found Dec. 14 by her nephew lying on a couch as if she had fallen asleep watching TV.
“It appears as if it was a peaceful passing,” said her son, Brett Anderson. She had turned down her family’s requests for her to move to a senior care facility.
McKee, who was married to Wendell “Wendy” Anderson when the Democrat was elected governor in 1970, was a feminist who put her family first, Brett Anderson said. She and her husband divorced in 1990 and she resumed the use of her maiden name. Wendell Anderson died at 83 in 2016.
“Building a life for herself after my parents split up was something that I think took effort and courage,” Brett Anderson said. “It’s something she did with great success. She was very much her own person and did not live her life at all in the shadow of what was a very extraordinary time for our family.”
McKee was born in Bemidji in 1940. Her mother, Norma, was a Girl Scout troop leader and camp director. Her father, John, was owner and director of the McKee Funeral Home and was a state legislator from 1951 to 1966, according to the Minnesota Historical Society archives.
She earned a degree in architecture at the University of Minnesota, the only woman in her class of 80. She returned to school for an education degree and taught for three years at Grant Elementary in St. Paul. She later earned a master’s degree in home economics.
She met Wendell Anderson while working as a page in the Minnesota Legislature. They married in 1963 and had three children — Amy Anderson, Elizabeth Crow and Brett Anderson.
Her 37-year-old husband was elected governor in 1970 and served as Minnesota’s 33rd chief executive until 1976. The St. Paul native and former Olympic hockey star was also a state legislator, U.S. senator and University of Minnesota regent.
During her tenure, McKee fit her official duties around the needs of her children. According to the Historical Society archive, her favorite memories included a 1972 luncheon with presidential candidate George McGovern, entertaining royalty such as Britain’s Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon and King Carl Gustav of Sweden, and eating pecan pie with presidential candidate Jimmy Carter.
“She had pictures in her house of having dinner with Ronald Reagan,” her son said.
She was also actively involved with the Girl Scouts, serving on its national board in the 1970s.
Beyond public life, McKee enjoyed working with her hands and spending time with her many social groups, Brett Anderson said.
“She was someone who was very into carpentry-like projects,” he said.
She enjoyed restoring old houses, such as a farmhouse in Stillwater where the family lived when her husband was governor. The Plymouth house she had lived in for the last 30 years started out as a simple cabin. She dug out the basement, added a second floor and entertained there regularly.
“It was her pride and joy,” Anderson said.
After her divorce, she worked as a franchise developer, in corporate real estate and later as an admissions representative in the radiology department of Hennepin County Medical Center, he said.
“She was proudly and never-endingly busy,” he said. “She was someone who was very on top of things.”
And, he added, she was an excellent grandmother.
“I’m thankful for all she did for us; I’m proud of her,” he said. Her passing was a shock to the family, as she seemed to be doing well over Thanksgiving.
A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Jan. 5 at the Washburn-McReavy funeral home in Hopkins, with visitation at 9:30 a.m.