McNair helped restore Handke Stadium, adopted river

by Jim Boyle

A funeral service was held Saturday, June 30, for Thomas Jay McNair, a longtime Elk River resident and community banker whose passion for Elk River gave him the drive to lead the effort to restore the Handke Stadium in Elk River, clean up the Mississippi river bed and do whatever else he could to make the town a better place to live and do business.

He died suddenly June 26. He was remembered at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church for his connections to people, the legacies he leaves behind.

As an Elk River Rotarian, Tom McNair led the effort to restore the Handke Stadium to its original luster and get it on the National Register of Historic Places.

As a member of the Elk River Rotary, McNair helped lead the $250,000-plus effort to restore the stadium and get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He also chaired the club’s first Taste of Elk River.

“He loved Elk River,” said Mary McNair, Tom’s wife of 37 years. “He wanted people to enjoy the town.”

From his perch at First National Bank and The Bank of Elk River, he found a way to leave the Mississippi River considerably cleaner than he found it on his travels downstream over the years. He got bankers, Rotarians and others to help in river clean-up efforts that became his trademark. The work wasn’t a chore, but rather a gathering of friends and good times.

“He was a friend of the river,” Mary said.

McNair kept close tabs on the river, even in the winter when the temperatures dipped into the 20s. Some of his favorite canoe rides into work were on those crisp, cold mornings. It’s easy to tell because he kept a journal of his experiences. Occasionally, he added a picture or two he took, like the times he spied a beaver making a dam or a red fox on the ridge line of the horizon. Or maybe it was a bald eagle high above that captured his attention. He noted the obvious and the mystical.

Tom McNair kept a close watch over the Mississippi and Elk rivers through the years and spearheaded Adopt the River clean-up efforts.

“Who else is going to notice tiny white feathers on the water?” said Andy McNair, one of Tom and Mary’s two grown sons.

“He soaked it all in,” Mary added.

McNair grew up on the Elk River near Handke School. He developed an adventurous soul. He and Mary, who started dating in high school, married in 1975.

Tom pursued a career in banking after high school and by 1978 landed a job at First National Bank in Elk River. He worked there in various roles, including executive vice president/manager of lending. From 2004 to now he worked at The Bank of Elk River as the director of lending.

He took pride in his work at the banks and in the community.

“He was viewed as one of the most brilliant bankers — on all levels — in his dealings with customers and the people around him,” said Stewart Wilson, of The Bank of Elk River. “His honesty, integrity and intelligence were of the highest standards, yet he was always modest.”

Many who worked with him considered him their mentor. Wilson called it a privilege to have worked with him and served with him on the Elk River Rotary. McNair won a Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Rotary for his contributions to the community.

But if you asked him what he was proudest about, he would say his two grown sons — Adam and Andy. His happiest times were spent together as a family.

“He loved to work hard and play hard,” the bulletin shared at his funeral stated. “He loved tree cutting, working around the house, golf, cribbage, Tuesday night pool, playing the harmonica and the piano. He was a great storyteller. He loved games and he always played to win.”

He passed on his love of the outdoors to his boys, something that was easy to do after he and Mary built their dream home on the Mississippi River.

“Tom spent lots of time on that water, with family and friends,” said the Rev. Kevin Anderson, who gave the homily for McNair. “Fishing, canoeing, swimming, using the rope swing, looking for turtles or simply sitting by this wonderful moving body of water and watch it go by.”

McNair was also remembered for his ability to laugh, tease and heckle.

“That’s one of the many reasons why gathering here today doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Anderson said. “Instead we should be hearing Tom tell of his next adventure … or a fishing or hunting trip.

“Or we should have him helping one of his neighbors …

“Or we should be hearing how he golfed with Mary and friends …

“Or participating in one of those countless programs he was so involved with in the city, everything from the Rotary and the United Way to spearheading clean up the river programs, to helping out with the Arts Alliance or ushering at church.

“And especially we should be hearing about how proud he is of his boys, Adam and Andy, and his new daughter in-law, Kelsey.”

And yet, Anderson said, they were at his funeral, “crying and trying to put the pieces together.”

Those at the funeral hung on Anderson’s every word.

“There was so much love in that church,” Mary said. “So many lives that Tom touched.”