Motorcycle lover Ron McKinley moved us forward

By Joe Nathan


Ron McKinley loved motorcycles, and he loved to laugh.  He especially loved riding Harley-Davidson Motorcycles around the country.  He also was a wonderfully effective mentor and advocate for expanding opportunity and justice.

An Illinois native and St. Olaf graduate, McKinley identified with his Mescalero Apache roots. As his memorial service program explained, “His positions included vice president of the St. Paul Companies Foundation, founding director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, coordinator of American Indian Programs for Macalester College and executive director of the National Network of Grantmakers. He was also active in Native Americans in Philanthropy. “ He also was a Board member of many groups, including Mixed Blood Theater Group, Headwater Foundation for Justice, Minneapolis Planning Commission, the Minnesota Council on Foundations, and Migizi Communications.

Some of his happiest moments were riding his Harley around the country.  But sadly, several weeks ago, McKinley died after a motorcycle accident in Washington state.

A recent outdoor memorial service gave literally hundreds of people a chance to remember him, and remind each other of what we can learn from him.  There was  enormous racial diversity: American Indian, African American, Asian American, Hispanic and white –  among the hundreds of people who attended.  McKinley modeled a life of inclusion.  With grants, contracts, meetings, workshops and mentoring – he worked with a vast array of people.

An eagle soared over Lake Como, where the service was held. For some of us who attended, that eagle was a reminder of McKinley’s spirit…continuing to inspire.

He took his world seriously, but never himself. He was a wonderful leader, teacher and advocate who helped many directly, and helped many by training others to continue and carry forward his work.

Sometimes, at the end of our conversations, McKinley would say to me, “Keep going, and keep smiling.”  Though he experience some injustice and pushed hard for change, he retained a positive outlook.  He laughed easily and often.

Part of the memorial ceremony was singing “Get Together” by the musical group, “The Youngbloods.”  That song’s chorus is an apt description of McKinley’s work.


“Cmon people now,

Smile on your brother

Ev’rybody get together

Try and love one another right now.”


Minnesota State Representative Carlos Mariani recalled how McKinley helped young people, including himself.   “He was a mentor, a friend, a guide.”  As Mariani said at the memorial:  “it is a good day. Not because Ron is gone but because he was here and having been here he left us with a good legacy of social justice and inclusive opportunity.”

McKinley’s sister told hundreds of people, “He loved life and wanted simply to make things better for others.”  It’s hard to think of a better way to live.

Ron McKinley helped move the human race forward.  He helped many people learn how to continue that work.



Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, please comment below.