Joy’s ride: Determination, beautification were hallmarks of McKee’s career

single-meta-cal July 9, 2021

“Joy is just a blessing to all of us.”

While just about anyone who knows or has met Joy McKee could’ve said that, Brian Walker, Huntsville’s director of Landscape Management, spoke those words about his former boss.

After nearly 22 years with the City, McKee turned in her fluorescent vest and gloves last week and rode off into the sunset of retirement.

“Goodbye tension, hello pension” was a sign McKee received from a staffer. But her love of Huntsville and making it the best she possibly could helped ease the “tension.”

“I was the luckiest department head in all of the City,” McKee said. “I had the most fantastic employees who would do anything I asked.”

McKee said leaving the City was “a little bit difficult.”

“It’s still in me,” she said. “It’s in my blood. But I know it’s in capable hands.”

In fact, on her first day off the job, she put herself in capable hands at a local day spa.

“I had a full day at Terramé,” McKee said. “I was treated royally.”

Afterward came the pièce de résistance:

“Then I came home and took a nap. It was quite funny.”

Planting seeds

It was likely her first daytime nap since being named Operation Green Team coordinator by then-Mayor Loretta Spencer on Sept. 1, 1999. Green Team is the City’s program of environmental education and activities, a key component of Spencer’s administration.

“On her first day, Mayor Spencer walked up and down the Parkway and noticed things that needed attention,” McKee said. “She planted trees – we’ve planted thousands and thousands of trees.

“It’s the little things that make us different from other cities.”

It was those “little things” that enabled Green Team to become a Keep America Beautiful affiliate, winning national awards for the programs McKee implemented. Those same programs also helped keep Huntsville clean.

McKee didn’t steal the limelight, Walker said. She instead credited her employees and the residents.

“When she is praised, she said, ‘It’s those guys who were doing the great job,’” Walker said. “She gave the praise to the others.”

Walker said that is just one way McKee took care of her employees.

“She was a wonderful boss,” he said. “She looked out for her employees. She would give them longer breaks and ice cream on the hottest days.

“And she would sing their praises to other departments.”

Taking root

Under McKee, Green Team continued to blossom. Litter and graffiti cleanup programs evolved into other beautification initiatives. Not only was McKee able to hire more staff, but she also employed an army of thousands of volunteers.

“At one time, we had 80,000 volunteers,” she said. “We got cooperation from the mayors (Spencer and Tommy Battle) to the City Council. Every one of the Council members has done Green Team volunteering.

“It’s phenomenal what you can get accomplished with cooperation.”

It’s also phenomenal what can be accomplished through education, a key Green Team component. Teaching people to be aware of their environment is a never-ending process, and some residents are stepping up and doing their part.

In fact, a program McKee is proud of concerns watching where one steps, particularly when dog waste is afoot. When walking in her Five Points neighborhood, she would stumble upon dog waste, which sparked an idea.

“By educating through Green Team, ‘poop bags’ became an item,” she said.

Those bags are now as much a part of dog-walking as leashes.

In full bloom

It didn’t take long for the administration to see how much of a positive impact McKee was making on the community. In December 2007, she was asked to lead Landscape Management. McKee ultimately combined Green Team and Landscape Management operations into a formidable environmental force.

“Landscape employees became more aware of litter and graffiti issues on their routes, which meant more problems were getting resolved all over the City,” Walker said. “Huntsville’s landscaping was brought to another level and beautiful annual baskets were now being placed throughout downtown.”

McKee also created the Operation Green Team Foundation, the City’s first charitable foundation, to help raise funds for various projects.

“She really mentored me and others in the department on how to go out and reach out for work and donations,” Walker said. “Not only for her programs, but other departments, as well.”

McKee said the love of getting donations stemmed from her childhood and helping her father with various organizations.

“I’ve never been shy about asking for donations,” she said. “It started when my daddy asked me to help collect for the Lions, the Gideons. People couldn’t turn down a cute, little girl.”

Because the City doesn’t have an endless budget, McKee said churches, companies and other groups would step up and do what they can.

“That’s what I love about this community,” she said.

Change of season

As success breeds success, McKee was also asked to oversee the Cemetery Department. Though she had no background in cemetery management, she accepted the position.

“She never once said ‘I can’t do that,’” said Walker.

In her tenure overseeing the City’s nine cemeteries, Glenwood Cemetery was placed on the Alabama Historic Cemetery Register and Maple Hill Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A pair of expansion projects in Maple Hill Cemetery were completed, including a cremation section.

“We just opened a cremation section at Maple Hill,” McKee said. “And my last act was selling five spots.”

Helping the City in the final hours of her career is a testament to McKee’s dedication and pride.

“She left a lasting mark on the City of Huntsville,” Walker said. “And when people would see something new or something fixed, they’d say ‘Oh, that must’ve been something Joy took care of.’”