As a long-awaited memorial to the late Bill J. McKown, a gazebo in the middle of the Great Bend Brit Spaugh Zoo, was dedicated Thursday morning. The ceremony came as part of the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce coffee hosted by the Zoological Society.
The white structure, located between the alligator pond and the fish pond, stood out from the shaded lush green surroundings as folks gathered in the tropical humidity to honor McKown, who died in March 2014. Although he became a quadriplegic at age 19 after an August 1975 traffic crash near Fresno, Calif., the lifetime Great Bend resident remained active in the community.
“It’s taken years to get this accomplished, but it is a suitable and fitting memorial to Bill,” said Robert Feldt, a member of the Friends of Bill McKown Memorial Committee who called McKown one of his heros. “I am very pleased we finally have done it.”
And, he added, McKown loved zoos. “I believe Bill would have approved.”
Despite the wheelchair, “Bill lived an extraordinary life, a heroic life,” Feldt said. He lived that life in service to others and his community, never letting the disability hinder his mind or spirit.
Another longtime friend, Chet Cale, said he grew up with McKown and knew him before the crash. He recalled boyhood pranks and playing flag football.
Then, he passed around a photo of McKown at a Boy Scout camp prior to being injured. He stood atop a mountain.
“It’s a reminder to all of us that our tomorrows are not certain,” Cale said. “Don’t forget to feel the grass between your toes.”
Last to speak was McKown’s oldest brother David. He told of a young, vibrant McKown who wanted to become an artist, but who evolved into the civic leader he became.
Still, he remained humble, always thanking those who helped him. “He always said it took a village to raise a quad,” David said, his voice trembling with emotion.
The large crowd included Zoo Society members, zoo staff, chamber representatives, city officials, community members, and friends and family of McKown. Even a family of Canada geese wandered by.
Feldt said the committee raised the money to build the gazebo, which was considered a fitting tribute to McKown.
The structure is handicap accessible, built so two people in wheelchairs could enter and sit side by side. A plaque off the back side features McKown’s photo and a biographical sketch of him.
Work started on the gazebo last year with the pouring of the concrete pad, but it was slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Purchased from Sturdi-Bilt of Hutchinson, Brentwood Builders of Great Bend assembled and installed it this spring.
Feldt first discussed this project with the zoo supervisor and Great Bend Zoological Board of Directors in 2019. Then-zoo supervisor Sara Hamlin said a gazebo could replace the dock that was removed in 2017 after it had rusted and fallen into disrepair. The dock was installed in the 1990s and was a popular spot in the zoo where people could watch or feed the carp in the pond.
After plans for a statue in the Barton County Courthouse Square fell through, Hamlin suggested the gazebo.
Feldt also serves on the Zoo Society’s Board of Directors – something his friend McKown talked him into doing – and found members were open to the idea of a gazebo where families could sit to watch and feed the fish in the pond.
A little about Bill McKown
McKown’s disability didn’t stop him from living a more-than-full life, friends said. He was scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 155, held many positions at the prestigious National Boy Scout Philmont Ranch in New Mexico, and received numerous scouting awards.
McKown served as the Kansas delegate to the President’s Commission for the Handicapped.
He also devoted his time and talents to the Kiwanis Club, Great Bend Jaycees, Barton County Arts Council, Great Bend Zoological Society, Great Bend Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Central Kansas, Cheyenne Bottoms, Relay for Life of Barton County, Panther Booster Club and Cougar Booster Club. The zoo and other groups will receive financial gifts in perpetuity through his endowments to the Golden Belt Community Foundation.