Leonard McKay

It is with great sadness that I report the passing away of our close friend Leonard McKay this morning. A native of Los Gatos who bravely served our country in Europe during World War II, he was 85. He was a beloved colleague of all of us here at San Jose Inside and we are going to miss him so much. We will be running a special tribute to Leonard in a few days and I will keep our readers informed of the plans for services below. In the meantime, please feel free to express your feelings or personal remembrances of our remarkable friend who loved life and freely shared his great knowledge of local history for the benefit of all. As a tribute, I am repeating one of his favorite stories again below. He loved to tell this one and would howl with laughter at his youthful naiveté.

Fish and Snakehips’s Romantic Adventure

By Leonard McKay

It was in the ancient days during the Great Depression, before World War II, when I was a young boy approaching manhood. It is hard to realize today when teenagers go to their proms in limousines and plan to spend a thousand dollars plus to attend, but in 1938, it was a whole lot different.

The Junior Prom at Los Gatos High was approaching and my buddy, Bill “Fish” Hildebrand and I discussed attending. (When I was in high school, nearly everyone had a nickname. Bill was always called “Fish” and I was known as “Snakehips” because I was so skinny that if I turned sideways to the sun, I didn’t create a shadow.) Bill and I were both on the football team and had earned our block sweaters and felt it was time to impress the ladies. (Bill was a pretty good player and I kept the bench warm.)

The proms were always held in the tiny school gym, which was decorated with crepe paper for the event, and the bids cost $3.50 per couple—a fortune at the time. In our family, there was no such thing as an “allowance,” and while I had heard the term from some of the rich kids, we had to work to earn the fee. In fact, in my family, I always thought that an allowance meant that your folks let you spend the money you earned for school supplies and clothes.

We invited two girls we had our eyes on. Bill invited Lois Lane, or “LL” as we called her, short for “Luscious Lips,” and I invited Shirley “Twin Peaks” Macadoo (she had earned the nickname for obvious reasons). To our surprise, the girls both accepted and we were full of anticipation.

The week before the dance, the gossip around school centered on what corsage each of the girls would wear. White gardenias were the most popular choice, while some of the rich boys were giving their dates a beautiful orchid. There was much discussion amongst the girls and panic set in with Bill and me. This was an unexpected expense and we had already spent all our money to pay the three and a half bucks, and it was out of the question to ask our folks for this extravagant waste of money.

Bill’s mother came to our rescue two days before the event. She had once worked in a flower shop and even had two unused gift flower boxes. Mrs. Hildebrand said that if we could locate suitable flowers, she would make the corsages. We immediately set out to find flowers and stopped to see neighbors who had a lovely garden. After we described our plight, they generously offered anything they grew. Mrs. H. wanted the flowers to be fresh, so on Friday afternoon, Bill and I picked the most beautiful gold and pink, double hibiscus blossoms and rushed them to the Hildebrand house. Mrs. H. did us proud and made beautiful corsages—so big that the girls had to wear them on their wrist instead of a breast.

LL and Twin Peaks were duly impressed, so much so that they bragged to the other girls about what their escorts had given them. Everything was going wonderfully and Bill and I were the toast of the ball until about 10 p.m. when the damned hibiscus blossoms thought it was night and closed themselves. Of course, the first to notice were the other girls, and pointed remarks were cast in our direction. “What happened to your flowers, dearie; are they supposed to look like that?”

Our dates couldn’t wait to get rid of the two cheapskates they were with and it was our last romantic adventure with Luscious Lips and Twin Peaks.

33 Comments

  1. He was one of the good ones. Will miss reading his pieces of history. At least we were fortunate enough to get to share his knowledge on here for awhile.

  2. Leonard McKay was a treasure and an invaluable asset to our city and valley – he will not only be missed – he will be remembered through his good deeds and fine writing and love of our history.    TMcE

  3. As a non-native San Josean, I always enjoyed reading Leonard’s stories.  They helped me get a real sense of this valley’s history.  He has left something of himself on this board with his stories, and I’m grateful.

  4. We have lost a good friend, true San Josean, great historian and preservationist.  I will miss his wisdom, stories and humor.  Mondays at SJI will never be the same.  God Bless Leonard.

  5. Leonard was a treasure that every city should have.  He made the large small and thus understandable.  I don’t believe there is anyone who can replace him.
    My best wishes and deepest sympathy to those who survived him.

  6. The passing of Leonard puts an election in perspective.  He was a good man.  His knowledge will be missed, but his contribution to history will be long remembered.

  7. I had the great fortune to be with Leonard last Monday at a California Pioneers meeting.  He and I were discussing Sarah Winchester and how most people were not aware of her great generosity.  I mentioned to him at the time how we all look forward to his Monday morning history lesson.  I imagine that he is together with Clyde Arbuckle now comparing notes about the great ride through life they enjoyed here with us mortals.  Rest in peace Leonard and thanks for the memories.

  8. Mr. McKay was a true gentleman, my lasting vision of him will be as he stood at the dedication of the Fallon statue.  He donned a large top had, patriotic colors and had his dogs with him.  Truly, you would have thought that Abe Lincoln was in town.  His passing is another example of life being a series of farewells.

  9. A sad note indeed.  I never knew Leonard but I enjoyed his columns.  Leonard and I shared a friend, Eric Carlson.  Eric spent many hours talking with Leonard about old San Jose and had nothing but good things to say about him.  I echo Dan above… Leonard and Clyde are likely sharing stories about our local history.  We’ll all miss you Leonard.

  10. I still remember the first time I met Leonard, back in the mid-80’s.  We were at the San Jose Athletic Club in the Jacuzzi.  Leonard was regaling a couple of us about San Jose history.  I asked him what was up with Pellier Park—seemed abandoned and uncared-for.  He went into quite a bit of history about it.

    Then I asked him what he did.  He responded that he was a co-owner of Smith-McKay Printing, and described the business briefly, and the memorabilia shop.  He said if there were any problems, though, to go see Smith.  Since he had a twinkle in his eye, I asked if Smith was still among us, to which he responded “No”, with a chuckle.  I guess they’re back together now, with Clyde Arbuckle.

    I saw him last just a couple of weeks ago, once again at the San Jose Athletic Club.  Had I known it would be our last meeting, I would have chatted longer.

  11. I met Leonard a few times through his association with our shared friend, Eric Carlson.  He was so warm and forthcoming to those of us who grew up in San Jose and shared his love of the local history and personalities.  Though we had just met, he mixed it up with me as if he had known me since I was a baby. I was also fortunate to have met him in his shop, now closed, that contained some wonderful items of local interest that were illuminated by his commentary.  I wonder what will happen to Clyde’s shovel?
    Tom McEnery deserves much credit and affection for showcasing Leonard so beautifully in his golden years on this site.  One says about many that an individual would seem to live forever.  Leonard seemed ageless as few I have known, and I really just assumed that he would be around for a few more years, he was so vital, fun, and sharp.

  12. About ten years ago I got my hands on an interresting and wonderfull book called A Postcard History of San Jose—co-written by Leonard McKay. I did not know who Leonard McKay was, but there was a blurb in the back of the book with an address for Memorabilia of San Jose. Who knew such an amazing place existed? I immediately drove downtown and acquainted myself with Leonard and his Shop of San Jose wonders.

    I would go back many times, and once Leonard gave me a personalized tour of Oak Hill Cemetary, including the old Chinese section. I am very lucky to have known Leonard, who told stories with a mischievous glint in his eye and always had time to chat, inviting you into his odd office lined with ancient San Jose phone directories and walls decorated with fake stuffed talking fish. Leonard had a great sense of humor (that sometimes got him in trouble).

    The world, and San Jose in particular, was better off for knowing him.

  13. It was with great sadness that I read about Leonard’s death yesterday He was truly a historian’s historian and a preservationist’s preservationist. He will be deeply missed.

    From the time I became involved in San Jose’s history and preservation, Leonard was one of the go-to-people for learning about our valley’s history. I had the pleasure of working with and learning from him for 26 years. The last project we workied on together was the reconstruction of Pellier Park. I think it would be a fitting tribute to put a special plaque in the new park commemorating him.

    I can only hope my memory is half as good as his was when I reach his age.

    My sympathies to his family.

    Judi Henderson

  14. Some messages here are bringing to mind local history projects that Leonard did with the other Jim Arbuckle, Pellier Park coming up first. While working with Leonard, they’d have some fun, that Jim presenting himself as Clyde’s illegitimate son. After returning to San Jose, I was puzzled at first for compliments on accomplishments unknown to me.

    An event I missed during that absence was Leonard’s suffering as my dad’s last book missed its City Bicentennial date by about eight years. My dad was a perfectionist as to content and style, doing interminable rewriting. It did come out all right.

    Just a few years ago I caused Leonard to relive some of that anxiety with a connected story. Just after 9/11, I came across on the web a London dealer with two leather-bound copies of the book, and I was headed over there to visit one of my dad’s old friends, a gent then 93 who’d written on New Almaden. The dealer told me that those particular books, sent by Leonard to England for binding, never made it back to the States. She’d bought them at the market in Portobello Road because she liked the binding, and then she recounted their history.

    As that history unwound, I learned that the first batch of leather laid down molded, then the fellow who did the gold work had a nervous breakdown, and finally, the venerable old firm went into BK. Seeing Leonard’s blood pressure rise at recounting that history, I was regretting having brought it up. On a rainy day, the dealer took to look better at the inside of her new purchase and found that here was a historian who could write. She now knows quite a bit about San Jose, and those books are now someplace back in California.

    And thanks Dave for reminding me of my dad’s shovel, that well-worn tool, shortened and shaped by decades of use.

  15. I met Lennie this past August as we were out walking our dogs in San Jose’s Shasta-Hanchett district. He introduced himself as an historian interested in the restoration of a building along The Alameda. My dog and I got to know his golden retriever, Traveler, as well during many morning treks. Lennie gave me his canine’s history, too: found abandoned along a roadside when Lennie was visiting the East Coast (North Carolina?). His dog was afraid of riding in cars, Lennie said, speculating he probably had been thrown out of one and left to starve. Lennie related a time he’d recently taken Traveler to the vet for shots. “I’ll never do that again,” the pet guardian said. Not only was Traveler frightened by the car trip, but got stuck with a needle on arrival at the pet hospital.

    I’m devasted by this personal loss—and San Jose’s./Ellie Molloy

  16. Jim Arbuckle wrote: “Thanks Dave for reminding me of my dad’s shovel, that well-worn tool, shortened and shaped by decades of use.” 

    The topic of Clyde’s shovel came up not too long ago at one of The California Pioneer’s Board Meetings.  As The Paulson House neared restoration at History Park, and discussions were exchanged regarding which of The Jackson Sister’s furniture would be used to occupy what rooms, Leonard spoke out and proclaimed that the one item we needed to make sure we made room for was Clyde’s worn out shovel. 

    “Maybe now we will have a fitting Place of Honor… maybe on one of the walls…” he exclaimed, “Maybe we could hang it next to an A.P. Hill painting… spotlights shining on both of them.” 

    His eyes did indeed twinkle when he saw visions in his head of what should, or could, be possible…

  17. I did not know Leonard McKay except through his by-line on this web site.  I do know that his stories were uplifting and entertaining and he could describe the history of San Jose in a way that made it come alive.  Some of his stories made me laugh out loud (see above).  I will miss this weekly few minutes of happiness.  Rest In Peace Leonard.

  18. I have such wonderful memories of “hanging out” at Memorabilia-  It was so fun to share memories of Santa Clara Valley with Leonard and listen to his wonderful stories about the local history.

    I could always find some wonderful books to purchase to add to my California history collection.  I so loved that beautiful painting of the redwoods by Andrew Hill. 

    One time when I arrived at the shop he was just leaving for a luncehon meeting-!  I was so disappointed not be be able to shop and visit with him.  To my surprise and delight, Mr. McKay asked me if I would like to stay and “hold down the fort” until he returned in about an hour.  That was quite an honor. 

    My memories of afternoons at Memorabilia are very special ones. Thank you Leonard for sharing with us all. 

    Carolyn

  19. From the first time we stepped foot into Mr. McKay’s “offices”, he welcomed our young children with his own history lessons.  He let them hold artifacts, explaining them stitch by stitch – something they could never get from any book or museum.
    When downtown was flooded in ‘95, we spent our time glued to the news with our former neighbors – children who could not return to their nearly flooded St. John Street home along the Guadalupe.  When the TV camera scanned to the former Pacific Western Bank building, and the kids all recognized how far the flood waters had gone, and in unison, they all gasped, “Mr. McKay!”.  For they all knew that it affected him, and knew all that was at stake.
    Thank you for your friendship and inspiration, Mr. McKay.  We will carry your lessons and kindness with us.  You will be missed.

  20. I never met Mr. McKay, but I felt I knew him through his stories. He seemed a wonderful man with a anstonishing memory and a great sense of humor. I am new to San Jose and his stories gave me a background to San Jose that helped me get to know my adopted home. I have met people like Mr. McKay accross the country, and like others, he will be missed. Thank you Mr. Mckay for giving me a base and a frame of reference to my new home. Rest in peace.

  21. My father was a remarkable man loved by all who knew him. On behalf of the Leonard McKay Family, we thank all of you for so many kind words. An announcement for the memorial service will be posted soon.
    God bless my dad.
    Chris Mckay

  22. Chris, your dad was truly a remarkable man. I will miss him. Our interests in Andrew Hill brought us together. I loved to read his posts on this site. It brought back so many of my own youth’s episodes. I’ll be forever grateful to Leonard for stopping me long enough to rediscover my past.
      The Americana Man, Keeper of Our Memories. He will be remembered.

          The Village Black Smith

  23. Leonard, the five years that I was lucky enough to know and talk with you have very positively affected my life. Always will I remember the time spent at Memorabilia, and your home, talking and doing research into San Jose’s hidden history. I wish to thank you again for everything and to let you know I will always keep the “Welcome Bear” (with both flags!) in a place of honor. As long as we all have memories of you, you will always be with us. My sincere condolences to the entire McKay family, John Stolp

  24. I got to know Mr. McKay through his stories on this site – I read his work every week.  I grew up in San Jose and know many people who love this town.  But Leonard has been the best storyteller of them all.  I know more about my hometown and neighborhood because of his great writing talents. 

    My sincere condolences to his friends and family.

  25. Chris,

    I had not heard of Leonard McKay until I visited SJI. His recollection of history was always informative and entertaining. I will always remember the first story I read (Luscious Lips and Twin Peaks) The story put me immediately on a time machine back to my nappy headed days of my youth in San Jose.

    He will be missed greatly by this reader.

    Thanks for the memories.

  26. Please pardon my late arrival here with condolences to the McKay family.  As it happens I was out of town attending a funeral this week.

    I never met Leonard but enjoyed his posts here on SJI.  Had I known sooner that he lived in my old neighborhood I probably would have sought him out for some historical perspective.  Had he not confirmed the legend of the lion of University Avenue, I may never have been certain that story was true.  He is definitely going to be missed, and his passing has left a void that will be tough, if not impossible to fill.

    Just as Leonard assumed the role of #1 SJ Historian when Clyde passed away, I hope there is someone who will pick up the baton and continue to highlight the rich history of this town that tends to be forgotten amid all the strip malls and urban sprawl.  Hopefully Leonard was grooming someone for that role.

    Thanks to T McE for allowing us to enjoy Leonard’s stories.

  27. To: Mckay Family

    Mr. Leonard Mckay is one of my good listener. The family will miss him, his stories and history.  He was a great person to work with, a good boss and like a father to me. Just like his son Dave Mckay I will miss him so dearly.
    We love you and rest in peace.
    Condolences to the Mckay Family.

    As always,
    Cecilia Mckenzie & Family
    Former employee of Smith Mckay

  28. To everyone who has written and phoned, we would like to thank you for your kind thoughts and geneous tributes to our father, Leonard McKay.  Dad loved San Jose and he will live on through his stories and anecdotes for as long as you remember them.  Please accept this as our heartfelt thanks- because a storyteller is nothing if he does not have not a wonderful audience. 
    with love,
    Annie McKay O’Riley and all of the Mckay clan