There is a house on Woodway’s Bellaire Drive unlike any other in the neighborhood. Several cheerful birdhouses hang from the eaves. One fashioned in the shape of a cross hovers in the air atop a painted blue pole. Even the mailbox is a work of art.
And visible from the street, beneath a 14-foot carport, four playground-scale railroad cars, constructed of solid cedar planks, are arranged in the shape of an “S,” just begging for a few lucky children to climb aboard and play make-believe.
The train cars were built by Mike McGee, 65, over the course of four months, with only the use of his left hand, a small workbench and a complex diagram which his wife, Gayla, 64, had ordered from a Winfield Collection catalog.
Mike fetched the dusty pages from his garage — the same ones he’d studied eight hours a day for months on end.
“He just worked off this pattern,” Gayla said, watching Mike unfold his schematic. The series of geometric figures and alphanumeric coding may as well have been instructions for building a space shuttle.
“But the thing is,” Gayla added, “he could only look at the pictures.”
In 2003, a stroke left Mike without the use of his right arm, with little use of his right leg, and a lack of oxygen to the brain during the event resulted in aphasia — a global term that refers to the loss of speech or language comprehension at varying degrees of severity.
In Mike’s case, he can no longer read nor write, and while he understands what a speaker may be telling him, Mike can only produce a handful of words in response. Communication is labored and often frustrating, but Gayla, Mike’s wife of 47 years, usually understands what Mike is trying to say and serves as his mouthpiece.
“I bought the train pattern for him right after he had the stroke in ’03, but he couldn’t manage it at the time,” Gayla explained. “The pattern sat in the garage for eight or nine years before he found it again. He started it the end of February this year. He’d just look at the picture and we would go buy whatever amount of treated cedar plank at McCoy’s and bring it home.”
Beginning with birdhouse
Mike then gestured to one of the birdhouses in the backyard and Gayla explained: “He started early on with a birdhouse kit and made that one.” When the train pattern proved too demanding just after Mike’s stroke, he began with smaller projects. “He went from that birdhouse to this train nearly 10 years later.”
Mike also designs wooden crosses and has given them as gifts or has donated them. “He made some crosses you hang around your rearview mirror, and some you hang around your neck,” Gayla said. “We went down to the Church Under the Bridge, off I-35, near Baylor. He had made four huge bags of those little wooden crosses, and he gave everyone at the service a cross.”
Mike inherited much of his woodworking and other handyman skills from his father, who fought in World War II under Gen. George Patton and worked as an efficiency engineer in civilian life.
“We’ve got a book in the house,” Gayla said. “ ‘The Boy Mechanic,’ published in 1926. His father gave that to Mike when he was little. That was his first little book.”
Gayla and Mike met while attending Tennyson Junior High.
“We met at the Lions swimming pool and then we danced at a sock hop that night at Westview Skating Rink,” Gayla recalled. “It’s not there anymore. I think the Salvation Army is there now on Waco Drive.” They later attended Richfield High School and married when Gayla was 17 years old. “I had my engagement ring at 13,” she said. “The reason he married me was because my daddy had an automotive shop,” she explained over Mike’s laughter. “And he was always interested in cars.”
Working at M&M Mars
Mike would eventually take a job at M&M Mars as a maintenance man, until he earned a windfall promotion in the early ‘80s
“One engineer had designed a machine to wrap candy,” Gayla explained. “But it didn’t work properly, so they told Mike to disassemble the machine and get rid of it. Instead, Mike took it to the basement and rebuilt it, turned it on, and taped it with a video recorder. He found the part that wasn’t working and reconditioned it, put it back in and saved the company a million dollars.”
The machine was working better than it ever had. When Mike brought the news to his superior, the company told him, “he could have whatever he wanted,” Gayla said. So, he requested a position as “engineer tech” and traveled to M&M Mars plants all over the world—with Gayla in tow.
“They told Mike, ‘If we give you this position, we have to create that same position in all the plants,’ and Mike said, ‘Fine. I’ll train them!’ ” Over the course of Mike’s 30 years with Mars, the couple visited Australia, Canada, Holland, Germany and Mexico, to name a few countries.
The McGees moved to Woodway from China Spring in 1990 to be closer to work and cut down on the cost of gasoline.
“Our sons worked in town, too,” Gayla said. “So we were buying gasoline for four vehicles at the time. It was enough to cover the house payment on the Woodway house!”
Since the couple met, Mike and Gayla had been very active together, pursuing sports and activities many might consider eccentric, including waterskiing, flying remote-controlled aircrafts and offshore fishing using their own boat.
“We caught kingfish, we caught mahi-mahi,” Gayla said. “We fished for about 10 years. It got to where we were catching so much fish, Mike would go back to Mars and tell everyone how much fish he’d caught, and everyone would want to come out with us. They paid for the boat gas.”
Mike later became involved in mountain bike racing. “In 2003, when he had his stroke, he was ranked No. 1 in the state of Texas in his age group,” Gayla said.
Mike was looking forward to retiring on his birthday in July of that year, but he suffered the stroke four months earlier, on April 1.
“He had been out that day at Cameron Park,” Gayla recalled. “And he had climbed every hill out there in the second chain gear, which is pretty strenuous. After he had gone to bed, I heard him in the hall bathroom, and he never uses the hall bathroom. He had slurred speech and his right hand wasn’t working. I knew he was having a stroke and I took him up to the hospital.”
The lingering effects of his stroke make it impossible to pursue all the activities he once enjoyed, and Gayla had to have their home remodeled and outfitted for handicap accessibility.
“One of the things we were going to do once he retired was fly hot-air balloons,” Gayla lamented. “That’s the one thing we never did get to do.”
They traveled for some time, but eventually it was too much for Gayla to manage on her own.
“I sold the boats, but we still took a few trips with the fifth wheel and the truck,” Gayla said. “I had never pulled the fifth wheel myself and had to have a truck driver show me how to back it out. It’s like backing an 18-wheeler. But, it got to be too much and finally I just stopped.”
Sharing gift with others
Mike continues to use his woodworking gift to bless others, never accepting a dime for the creations he gives away— and it all started with a birdhouse. “He didn’t want to build it,” Gayla said. “I had to get him to do it.”
Even with his physical limitations, Mike keeps a busier schedule than most retirees. “He’ll get up about 7 o’clock in the morning and be in the garage about 7:45,” Gayla explained. “And he’ll work until 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon.”
Still unable to stay away from the biking trails entirely, Mike recently created the wooden signposts that mark each trail for riders at Cameron Park. As for what’s next: “He’s planning to build a greenhouse for all the plants he buys at the flea market,” Gayla said, pointing to the pattern in her Winfield Collection catalog.
The train cars will be featured in this year’s Lorena Christmas parade, where the younger of the McGees’ two sons lives with his family. “My son has a trailer for the train cars, so it’ll look like the train is moving on its own. And the Boy Scout troop there will be in the train cars throwing candy.”
After the first of next year, Mike and Gayla hope to donate the train to a children’s hospital or to the Cameron Park Zoo.
“There’s a place down at the zoo that’s in the shade. It’s near where you come in, where the kids can play and enjoy them. Kids do play at Whitehall Park sometimes, but we’re thinking about a bigger scale.”