McNay made the most of himself, and of life

Don McNay
Don McNay

Some 30-odd years ago, a cheeky young community columnist for the Herald-Leader challenged me in print to have him as a guest on KET’s Comment on Kentucky show.

Although our usual panelists were editors and reporters, I was so amused by the dare, I thought I’d show him. I called Don McNay and booked him for our Friday night program along with three veteran journalists who probably figured I had lost my mind.

He stammered on air and was so heavy then that we had to get him a special chair. But he didn’t embarrass me, and he got a few laughs out of us.

(Read our obituary of Don McNay)

Over supper at the Merrick Inn afterward, I learned he was working in insurance and had two years of college at Eastern Kentucky State University. He was from Northern Kentucky, son of a professional gambler and a mother who was a nurse. Before he got into insurance, he mucked stalls at the Horse Park.

Years later, he said I told him he was too smart not to finish college. I don’t recall the remark, but it was true. And he did go back, for a master’s degree at Vanderbilt.

But for that night, with the last cup of coffee he was out of my life for several decades until I needed a financial commentator and discovered he was running a structured-settlement business for lawyers and writing a column on economics for the Richmond Register.

Structured settlements are agreements on long-term payouts in court cases made by contesting lawyers with the help of financial experts. Don had become one of the best of those experts — or so he told me (modesty was not his burden).

An obsessive self-promoter, Don took to the Internet to tell the world he was on television. His boundless ambitions to succeed in journalism soon found him writing weekly columns for the national chain of CNHI newspapers, and then as a contributor to the Huffington Post.

Some of us in his circle of friends — lawyers, politicians and media folks — came to agree with Renee Shaw, my KET co-producer.

At first dismayed, she said, “I finally learned a big lesson from Don: If you don’t value yourself, and let others know you do, you’ll let someone else define your worth and treat you accordingly. Don believed he was great, and along the way, he convinced the rest of us.”

But he was no blowhard. He had a heart for helping others. When Jim Gray, our newly elected mayor, was invited to visit Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York, a tip from Don to a reporter friend at The New York Times paved the way.

Adam Turner, a 23-year-old EKU graduate who could spell better than Don, helped create Don’s book publishing company and became its first president. Clay Bigler, a McNay son-in-law, learned the settlement business from Don and became his president.

A year ago, Don set out to lose weight and, after shedding over 100 pounds, he wrote a book about it. Reflecting on the diet and exercise, he wrote that “just staying alive is a pretty weak ambition. I want to make the most out of life.”

Last week, he sent me and my wife an email that he had decided to take the last plane to New Orleans to spend Memorial Day weekend with wife, Karen. With his encouragement, she had resigned as head of the cathedral school in Lexington to become president of prestigious Ursuline Academy, a Catholic school for girls founded in 1727.

Last month, Don was with Karen as she received a doctorate from the University of Kentucky. She was with him Sunday morning when, complaining of a fierce headache, he collapsed and died. He was 57.

Visitation will be Sunday afternoon at Milward Funeral Home on Broadway; the funeral Monday at the Cathedral of Christ the King.

Six months ago, he wrote, “Life is at a high watermark and I have the wisdom to appreciate how lucky I am.”

Friends might say he seized his luck, took it almost to the top. A life force that went still, all too soon.

Veteran journalist Al Smith is writing a third memoir.