Crossing the finish line for the last time

David McKinnon’s death to rare illness shocks family, friends

Published on January 18, 2014
David McKinnon had a unique take on life, according to his childhood friend Bill Goodridge. — Submitted photo

“He took no offence, and he offended no one.”
That’s what Heather McKinnon says best describes her brother, David McKinnon. He was four years her senior and she says they had a typical childhood, growing up in St. John’s in a large Catholic family.

There were five McKinnon boys and Heather, the youngest and the only girl. David began school at Mary Queen of the Peace then transferred to St. Bon’s around Grade 4 before moving on to Gonzaga.

“We’re all very different personalities in the family, and he was much more quiet and studious and responsible.”

David always looked out for her, she says.

“He was the one who taught me how to drive — a standard. He helped me with my school work and that sort of stuff.”

When the McKinnons’ father died several years ago, the responsibility of taking care of their elderly mother fell on Heather’s shoulders. However, David would never let his baby sister carry the burden alone.

“David always stepped forward — did whatever he could, without being asked. He was always stepping forward to help me out, that’s just the kind of guy he was. Very, very steady and responsible, and you could count on him.”

She says David was a devoted father to his two girls, Jennifer and Erica, who are both on provincial soccer teams. She said he spent a lot of time with them, driving them to and from their activities, and was always more than proud to do so.

“He found great joy in that, just being around them and accompanying them on their various tournaments and games they were in.”

She says he looked forward to retirement and being able to spend more time with them doing that sort of stuff.

David and Greg Redmond became close friends during their biology studies at Memorial University.

“We just had a lot of common interests. We were into ball hockey, soccer and stuff like that,” says Redmond.

Eventually, they got into hiking and then running. Over the course of their nearly four decades of friendship they ran in many of the Tely 10 races together. In fact, Dave ran his first race with Redmond in 1984 when there were only 213 participants. Redmond says back then, most runners were very serious about it, and to be able to break the magic 60-minute mark was not easy.

“He broke 60 three times,” says Redmond, who remembers the time a reporter tried to predict the next big winner.

“I don’t recall the year, but it was either ’88 or ’89 and he chose Dave as a ‘Dark Horse,’ to win the Tely 10. So, it was always a joke to call Dave McKinnon a dark horse. We all knew that Dave wasn’t going to win the Tely 10,” he says with a laugh.


Impressive times

While David never won the race and his running friends teased him about the dark horse reference, his times were inarguably impressive. His best time ever was 58:13. He ran in at least 17 races, and in 2010 received a 15-year pin for his commitment to the sport. Redmond says each spring the two would train together.

“Myself and Dave and his brother Ken would meet at 6:30 in the morning and go for a run. It was always sort of a rite of spring for us.”

Bill Goodridge is another close friend from David’s childhood.

“We were only nine years old. Dave actually transferred in to our school at St. Bon’s,” he recalls.

Their friendship never faltered, even as the years passed and they grew into men with lives and families of their own. Goodridge says barely a day went by in those 45 years that they weren’t in contact. He credits David’s personality for their solid and enduring friendship.

“I always considered myself really lucky to have a friend like Dave. He was incredibly positive. Made you feel positive. Anytime you had an idea for anything — a street hockey game, a ball hockey game, an ice hockey game, a canoeing trip, a hunting trip, Dave was all over it. He was a team player.”

Goodridge says of David’s many redeeming qualities, his unique take on life stood out.

“Dave was quite clever and he was almost a little bit like the Codco crowd. He could look at a whole situation playing out and where no one would see the humour in it, he would make a one, two- or three-word comment that would be quite priceless. He was really funny.”

In late August, David wasn’t feeling well and figured it was a flu bug, but he was having trouble shaking it.

Just before he and his daughter were supposed to leave for a national soccer championship, some of the symptoms were recognized as possibly being hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) disease, a rare disorder where the immune system goes into overdrive and doesn’t shut down after fighting off an infection. It goes on to attack blood cells and other organs. Normally it’s seen in infants and small children who are born with it. David’s case was supposedly the first adult case diagnosed in the province.

Even with an early diagnosis, treating the disease is challenging.

“It came out of nowhere, it wasn’t genetic,” says Heather, who was tested early on as a possible bone marrow donor for her brother.

“We were scheduled to go to Halifax for a bone marrow transplant. I was his match. The bone marrow transplant would have likely resolved the illness.”


Never complained

Heather says David weathered the treatment of the disease during the fall and early winter very well.

“Any time the doctors and nurses asked him how he was doing, he would always say, ‘I’m good.’ He just never complained. Once he got over the initial crisis, it started creeping up again.”

Although he was very ill, David came home from the hospital for Christmas and spent those days with his wife Sharon and children. On Dec. 30, he went back to hospital. He died on Jan. 7 at age 55.

Greg Redmond says he still can’t believe his lifelong friend is gone.

“I don’t think any of us thought he wouldn’t get through this, and that was the shock. He was so healthy and so positive.”

He finds it tough to find words when he talks about this coming spring and training for the Tely 10.

“For me, it’s gonna be hard to start it ... and he won’t be there. Because he’s been there ... for 30 years.”

David and Redmond were not only running partners, they also worked together at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

“It’ll be 35 years ago this year for both of us, so through all the changes that you go through — getting married, having kids, all that kind of stuff, we’ve been together.

“There’s so many reminders. ... His name is still on his office door. He’s always been there through all my life. I’m really going to miss him.”

Goodridge is also finding it hard coming to terms with the loss of his friend.

“You know, when he was in hospital and the first time I looked at him, I said, 'Dave, I’m just looking at myself. I mean, I see the same lifestyle, the same health,’ and I just felt connected to him,” he says, as his voice trails off.

“He knew his priorities — his family was first, but he was loyal to his friends as well. I’ll miss the comforting presence I had with him and spending time with him; just generally knowing he’s there and always the guy I could ask a favour of … putting up a fence or tearing down a house. Whatever it was, Dave was always quite willing to help.”

Goodridge’s eulogy for David ended with a quote from Shakespeare: “His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”