September 14th, 2017 04:44PM
GAYLORD – Kevin McKinley didn’t serve in the military. His father didn’t either. He had a few uncles who did, but McKinley, the director of golf and ski for Treetops Resort and current president of the Gaylord Golf Mecca marketing group, didn’t realize what serving in the military meant.
“I spent 33 years of my life not paying a whole lot of attention,” said the 43-year-old PGA golf professional, Gaylord resident and Muskegon native, who in November will receive the 2017 National Patriot Award from the PGA of America.
McKinley has spent the last 10 years helping to raise over $300,000 to donate to the Folds of Honor program through an annual National Patriot Day golf outing called the Patriot Day Shootout. He also serves as the Michigan Section PGA Patriot Day committee chairman, where he has ushered an impressive 300 percent increase in donations statewide.
Inspired by the story of Folds of Honor founder Major Dan Rooney, McKinley has been the driving force behind the Treetops fundraising effort, and many have noticed. He previously received the Department of Military and Veteran Affairs Legion of Merit, the Camp Grayling American Patriot Award, and was named Michigan Army National Guard Civilian of the Year. In addition, the Michigan Section and the it’s northern chapter have presented multiple Patriot Awards to him.
Patriot Golf Day has become the largest grassroots golf fundraiser in America and is a joint initiative of the PGA of America and the USGA. It supports the efforts of the Folds of Honor Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides educational scholarships for the children and spouses of military men and women disabled or killed while serving in America’s Armed Forces.
McKinley’s charitable work is a part of the reason he has been named the PGA’s 2017 Golf Professional of the Year for the Michigan Section. In addition, in recognition of his leadership skills, he will take over as the section’s 44th president in October.
“I’m humbled and inspired to do more, all at the same time,” said McKinley. “Every single veteran and active military person I’ve met, they are just a different breed. We deal with a lot of charities at Treetops, a lot of outings that raise great amounts of money, but the military and Folds of Honor are the most humble recipients of charity I have ever dealt with. They profusely thank you, when in actuality, I should be and we all should be, thanking them because they and their loved ones laid their lives on the line to protect our freedoms and my family’s freedoms.”
Treetops hosted the 10th Patriot Day Shootout from August 31 – September 3. A video crew dispatched by the PGA of America followed and recorded McKinley as he directed, worked and interacted with veterans, volunteers and golfers through the weekend. The video will be shown when McKinley receives his national Patriot Award at the PGA of America’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas, in November.
“It went really well, but it was different than I imagined it,” McKinley said. “I lived with a microphone on me for two days, which was kind of interesting. I think the idea was to get you when you are acting as natural as possible, and record how you act and talk when nobody is looking or listening.”
“I had all the kids with me over the weekend and it was pretty thrilling when the entire family was together in some shots, though probably embarrassing for my teen and tween girls,” McKinley said. “The little boys thought it was cool though.” He enjoyed having his family on hand, which includes his wife Jill and seven children: Andrew, 19; Lizzy, 15; Kaylie, 14; Emma, 12; Hogan, 9; Henry, 8; and Cooper, 7.
The Treetops event was started after McKinley first heard the story told by Major Rooney, at the time, a Grand Haven resident. Returning home to Michigan from his second tour of duty in Iraq, Rooney, an F-16 fighter pilot, became painfully aware of the reality families face when a loved one in uniform is killed.
As his flight landed, the pilot announced the plane carried the remains of Corporal Brock Bucklin, who had been killed in Iraq. The pilot asked passengers to respectfully remain seated while his casket was taken off the plane. Rooney watched as Bucklin’s twin brother walked somberly alongside the flag-covered casket to meet his family. Among them was the deceased Corporal’s young son, Jacob. Over half the passengers disregarded the pilot’s request. Rooney decided he had to do something, and the Folds of Honor Foundation was born.
Upon hearing the story McKinley decided to get involved and start the Shootout, and he invited Bucklin’s parents, Duane and Dawn to come to the event. They came, continue to come, and this year Bucklin’s son, Jacob, came for the first time, too.
In addition, a North Carolina PGA professional, Karl Kimball, recently challenged other pros across the country to make their local events bigger and better. Kimball had painted names of soldiers who had paid the ultimate price on the 18th fairway at Hillandale Golf Course so those who played in the event would realize the debt owed.
McKinley consulted with Treetops staff and started doing a similar project. The superintendent,Doug Hoeh, and his crew build a grid on the upper level of the huge driving range at Treetops North. McKinley takes paint and meticulously writes the names of all Michigan based soldiers who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as veterans of other wars and conflicts, as people request.
“It takes me five hours to do it, and it is funny that in the middle of it I will be bending down, my legs start to hurt, my back starts to hurt and I think about it for about two seconds because then I think about the names I’m painting on the turf. I think about what they and their families have gone through and suddenly my legs and back don’t hurt that bad anymore.”
McKinley said having Bucklin’s parents attend the Treetops event is a blessing. They interact with his family, which he considers wonderful for both sides. He feels the relationships gained through 10 years of putting on the event make an incredible impact on the resort’s staff and golfers.
“The Bucklin’s are wonderful people, and my kids getting to know them has been great,” he said. “I think my kids are understanding what a sacrifice this all is for the people who lose their loved ones, and when my kids see me getting an award for doing something like this, I hope it teaches them that giving back and helping are good things.”
Barry Owens, general manager of Treetops, is impressed by the work of McKinley and the effort the resort staff puts into helping others.
“It is a tremendous honor for Treetops to have such a top notch professional on our team,” he said. “Having the PGA of America coming to our resort to witness first-hand the effort in our work to help veterans and their families is also an honor for our community and the golf industry in our state.”
Kevin Helm, the executive director of the Michigan Section of the PGA, called McKinley amazing at what he does. “He has a passion for this, and when you are passionate you find time to do it and he does it better than anybody.” Helm continued, “He is a selfless guy who wants to help and it is nice that he is getting some national recognition for it. I know the families of the veterans really appreciate what he does and what Treetops does for them. It’s pretty special what Kevin and the people at Treetops are doing.”
Paul Beachnau, executive director of the Gaylord Golf Mecca, said McKinley is a tireless worker who gives back to the Gaylord community in many ways. “All the golf courses and partners of the Gaylord Golf Mecca are proud of him and what he and Treetops have done for the area,” he said. “He’s one of the reasons we have a great community.”
McKinley has previously been nominated for the National Patriot Award, but was not selected. He had attended the national meetings and witnessed the videos made about the winners, and came away newly inspired each time.
“I’m sure I will inspire myself to do even more when I see the video about us for the first time at the meeting,” he said, “And maybe I can inspire somebody else to try and top what we do at Treetops.”