Splayed across the side of a building on Railroad Avenue, to catch the eye of travelers coming through downtown Ashland aboard trains journeying north, is a sprawling train mural befitting the locomotive-loving town.
The story of how it got to be on The Caboose Market & Cafe begins after the death of Art McKinney, who in 1977 founded what now is engineering, design, planning and construction firm McKinney & Co., which has offices on the second floor of a different building overlooking the railroad tracks in town.
McKinney had shared his idea for the mural with loved ones, and had he not been hobbled by lymphoma, his wife and friends say, he undoubtedly would have shepherded the project through.
But McKinney, 72, died in February, and since then, his friends and a nonprofit organization have come together to carry on the vision of the beloved community philanthropist, whose engineering work crossed international borders.
In Hank Lowry’s last conversation with McKinney, the engineer shared his idea for a train mural. He wanted ideas from Lowry, who, in turn, offered to take on the project as part of Ashland Street Parties Inc., a nonprofit he helped start.
The organization contacted Ed Trask, a celebrated Richmond muralist, in August and commissioned him shortly afterward. He’s steamrolled ahead on the $25,000 project ever since.
Trask plans to finish the mural — which, at more than 100 feet on the side of a building owned by McKinney, is the longest piece he said he’s undertaken — by Ashland Train Day on Saturday.
For his part, Trask said, the artwork will be an homage to McKinney.
“It’s going to be a legacy piece,” he said.
Colleagues and friends remember McKinney as a worldly, well-traveled and sharp-minded man who displayed a wise, reassuring calm in moments when they found themselves uncertain or in distress.
Yusuf Lere, a structural engineer at the firm, recalled a project in which he overlooked a detail that had him thinking, “This is the end.” McKinney used his ability to unravel the problem, consoling Lere.
“It’s not built,” Lere recalled McKinney saying.
“(I’ve) never known an employer to really take you in as part of himself,” said Lere, who has worked at the firm for 24 years. “It was unbelievable. We miss him so dearly.”
McKinney’s projects included a fishery in Ghana and a concrete plant in Nicaragua, but his wife, Jerry McKinney, said he didn’t much talk about the work itself but focused on the side trips and experiences they afforded him.
He could remember precise details about dishes he ate abroad, and brought home tokens from trips, including hardened lava from a volcano in Panama that he used as a planter for a bonsai tree.
Lowry, who previously served on the Hanover County School Board, said McKinney, who lived in Beaverdam, was an avid supporter of Ashland activities. McKinney served on the board of the Ashland Police Foundation and was a longtime member of the Ashland Kiwanis club.
“He was just there. A lot of people that run businesses, they pack up and go home, but Art thought about what was happening when he wasn’t here,” Lowry said. “Art would show up when you might least expect him to.”
Jerry McKinney said her husband must have inherited his intelligence from his father, who worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, and his sensitivity from his mother, an artist and registered nurse.
But, she said, “He was a special person unto himself.”
The sentences are concise, clipped and matter-of-fact, each entry covering vast territory.
Jerry McKinney would wake in the mornings during the final year of her husband’s life to find him pecking away at his laptop with two fingers. He’d taken to blogging, the online outlet becoming a repository that vacillated among posts about his fight with lymphoma, how he labored over fixing up British sports cars and more tender reflections about his travels and the ones he cared for.
He wrote, in a Dec. 10, 2015, post, about how campfire conversations he shared with friends were seldom about business or work. Instead, they talked about the food they ate and the wine they drank; the ski trips abroad; the whitewater rafting; and, eventually, once their knees and hips surrendered to age, the games of golf they played.
“This brings to mind my basic thoughts on ownership vs stewardship,” McKinney wrote. “The only thing we actually own are our memories.”
Jerry McKinney said her husband would be awed by the way his vision was carried forward.
There are other things — smaller, everyday things, such as McKinney’s tools, the knickknacks he stowed in little garage drawers — that are more strongly tied to her memory of him than the mural unfurling across a building.
For her, the piece is a reminder of the many people who cared for and loved her husband.