During my 15 years as executive director of the San Juan Preservation Trust, I’ve worked for 64 dedicated volunteers who have served on our Board of Trustees. The diversity of their backgrounds would astonish anyone who isn’t familiar with our island demographic: from authors, artists and scientists to academics, lawyers and leaders in the business and government sectors, every single one of these accomplished women and men have enlightened the path that this organization has taken.
But there was something special about Steve McKeon. …
It took me awhile, I’ll admit. But after several nudges from members (“You’ve got to meet this guy!”), I sent off a quick email to Steve McKeon to ask if I could buy him a cup of coffee. If you care at all about this work, you’ll understand how grateful I am that he accepted my offer.
It was a sunny afternoon on the deck of the Orcas Hotel, and Steve was waiting for me at an outdoor table overlooking Harney Channel. He stood up with a shy smile to shake my hand, and we launched into a three-hour conversation. It was 2005, and I had only been on the job for a few years, but Steve—a retired securities attorney—had been watching the Preservation Trust closely since I had taken the wheel. In his (very) soft voice, he asked question after question about my assessment of this organization, and where I hoped I could take it. As I yammered on, he listened and nodded. When it felt like I had nothing left to say, he asked one last question:
“If you could choose one special property for the Preservation Trust to save, what would it be?
I responded without hesitation: “Turtleback Mountain.”
I returned to my office on Lopez, then quickly recommended to our Nominating Committee that Steve be considered a candidate for our Board of Trustees. His tenure began the following spring.
It wasn’t more than a couple of months after Steve joined the board that I received an after-hours phone call from the director of the Medina Foundation informing me that they would be listing Turtleback Mountain for sale the following morning. When I announced this news to my board, along with my half-baked plan to raise almost $20 million to purchase it, there was an audible slump in the room. But in that same moment, I can clearly remember locking eyes with Steve. This was what we had talked about on the deck of the Orcas Hotel. This was our mutual reason for being here.
Steve McKeon resigned from our board of trustees last month after serving our islands for 11 years, including a four-year term as President. During his tenure we added more than 100 properties and 8,000 acres to our conservation network, almost doubling the amount of land that had been protected prior to his arrival. Reserved, self-effacing and almost painfully soft-spoken, he has been an unassuming leader. But while he was here, the big decisions were never made without his consent.
I often say that Turtleback changed everything. With that unlikely victory now baked deeply into our organizational culture, there is a belief around here that just about anything is possible. Though he would never dream of taking the credit, this sense of confidence—built upon both success and responsible oversight—can be attributed in large part to the quiet leadership of Steve McKeon.
In September of 2010, I received another after-hours phone call. This one informed me that Vendovi Island was about to be sold at auction for several million dollars. Alarmed and on the verge of hyperventilating, I hung up the phone and immediately called Steve (in fact he was always my first call). The rest, as they say…
P.S. Most of you have probably heard by now that I, like Steve, have decided to step away from my official role at the Preservation Trust. Unlike Steve, however, I’ll be sticking around for a while longer, until a successor can be hired and brought up to speed. So please stay tuned—this won’t be the last “Note from Tim” you will see in this space.