Mike McGee has spent his life doing the things he wasn't supposed to do--including live.
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Mike McGee did something he was never supposed to do. He lived.
Mike was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1950, the first child of young parents. He had such severe physical malformations that the doctors refused to let his mother see him for the first five days of his life, because they were so sure he was going to die. He had no roof to his mouth, and his digestive system was so incompletely formed that his intestines were housed in his scrotum. In addition, there were a number of anatomical abnormalities, including the possibility that he might be “dwarfed.”
By the time Mike was a year and a half, he had seen dozens of doctors and had numerous operations to correct his deformities, and by the time he was two, he had a sister, normal in every way, and a father who was diagnosed as a brittle diabetic. He was three years old when his mother, Barbara McGee, took him to the Mayo Clinic, and the diagnosis of dwarfism was confirmed.
His parents determined that they would give him as normal a life as they could, and Mike was a willing participant. He was waterskiing by the time he was five years old, and when he started school, he made friends and participated in school activities. He had a mind for mathematics, and by the time he was a teenager, he was interested in automobile mechanics and hooked on stock car racing, a sport that was highly popular in the Midwest during the 1960s and 1970s. He was introduced to the racetrack by working as pit crew for his friends. At age 22, the required age for racing, he and his father built his first racecar, tailored to his size, and he moved on to the track.
Dynamite Mike was part of the NCRA racing circuit in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Kansas for ten years, and on the winner’s red carpet for many of those years. He developed a huge following and a large fan club, often signing as many as 200 autographs in an evening. He was idolized by children and would often let them sit in his car. He was a popular subject for the press, as well as racetrack promoters because he drew a crowd. His racing buddies and his pit crew, who came in all sizes, were loyal beyond reason. “We called him our compact John Wayne,” a friend said. Murphy Manufacturing, the company for whom he worked for more than twenty years until a serious accident ended his employment, was his racing sponsor.
If his mother worried about his social life, she needn’t have. Mike was popular with the girls and, in 1981, married Helen, a full-sized, single mother with two daughters. When their daughter Amber was born two years later, Mike’s life was complete. Helen and Mike bought a house, and Mike enjoyed the role of father and husband, working as many as three jobs to give his family a good life.
In 1985 Mike had part of his left foot amputated after it was crushed beneath a 1,000-pound lathe. Then, in May 1991, while working overtime at his job, he slipped on a piece of cardboard and hit his head on a concrete floor, suffering brain damage. In describing Mike, one would have to describe two people—the Mike before the accident and the Mike after the accident. The man who could build an engine that won the Best Engineered Car in 1975 could no longer remember his phone number or his street address. He had balance problems that caused difficulty in walking; he had vision problems that caused light sensitivity and distorted his perspective to the extent he could no longer drive, and a startle response to sudden noises that caused involuntary reactions.
The years 1991-1995 were an exhausting nightmare for Mike and his family as he endured hundreds of appointments and examinations by dozens of doctors. Repeated MRIs, X-rays, and CAT scans could not pinpoint any definitive reason for these symptoms nor give an explanation. “Then why isn’t he the way he was before?” his parents wanted to know. Being a workers’ compensation case, the insurance company wanted to settle. “We don’t care about the money,” Phil and Barbara said. “We want him back the way he was.” In an effort to do that, Mike spent two months at The Centre for Neuro Skills in Irving, Texas, for extensive testing and training in an effort to aid him in returning to the workforce and to be able to live independently.
His wife Helen, who never dealt well with crises, could not cope with what had happened to Mike and what was happening to the life she’d made for herself. They were divorced in 1993. It was a bitter and hurtful divorce, and Mike was devastated. It was during this dark time that Mike often sat and watched his mother, an artist of merit in the Tulsa area, paint. It was a talent she inherited from her mother and an outlet she sought as she cared for her diabetic husband. “Is that hard to do?” Mike asked.
Today Mike is a prolific painter who lives in his own apartment. While he lives in near darkness because of his sensitivity to light, his paintings are vivid and full of bright colors. “Magical, mystical,” his art teacher calls them. “They are what Mike sees in his head.”
His daughter Amber is married to a Native American of the Cherokee Nation, and Mike is the proudest of grandfathers to her three children. His travels are limited to where he can go in his wheelchair, and he is dependent on others for some of his needs. He spends much of his time painting, but on Saturdays and Sundays during racing season, he’ll be in his chair in front of the television set watching the races. Mike is once again building race cars—not to run on any track—but it is his latest art form.
Mike McGee, who had his sixtieth birthday in 2010, is a remarkable person with a gentle, forgiving, accepting nature, who has the ability to overcome, to improve, to “do better the next time.” Yet there is a second champion in this story—his mother, Barbara McGee—the woman who, as a 20-year-old mother, vowed to give her son the best life he could have. Theirs is a story that deserves to be told.