This post was written by Processing Archivist Thomas DeShong.
The latter half of the twentieth century was one of the most socially tumultuous times in American history. It was a period of great change when the United States struggled to define its role as the leader of the free world against an ever-present Communist threat. The early 1970’s witnessed President Richard Nixon’s withdrawal of American troops from a bloody war in Vietnam only to withdraw himself from the presidency under the scandal of Watergate. The American people’s trust in the government was shaken as the 1970’s ushered in a time of economic depression. The 1980’s witnessed the rise of the Moral Majority and the Religious Right, the introduction of Reagan-omics, and the concluding years of the Cold War. During this time of upheaval, a woman from Texas named Mattie Mae McKee worked in Washington, D.C. amongst various movers and shakers. We here at the W. R. Poage Legislative Library are proud to announce the processing of a new collection, the Mattie Mae McKee papers, which is the newest women’s collection at our repository. It provides a firsthand glimpse into what it was like working in the nation’s capital during this period in history.
Mattie Mae McKee, the daughter of Sarah Taylor McKee and John Thomas McKee, was born in Sonora, Texas, on November 26, 1938. After graduating from San Angelo High School in 1957, McKee earned her associate’s degree in Business at San Angelo Junior College in 1959. She gained valuable legal experience working for her uncle Basil Taylor in San Antonio and worked for eight years as a secretary and office manager for the Kerr & Gayer law firm in San Angelo. In 1966, McKee passed a rigorous examination to become a Certified Professional Legal Secretary; one of only twelve in the state of Texas at that time and the ninety-sixth to be certified in the United States.
In March 1968, McKee entered the realm of national politics as a congressional aide for Representative O.C. Fisher, a Democrat who represented the 21st Congressional District of Texas. Representative Fisher, who served in the U.S. House from 1943 to 1974, was Chairman of Subcommittee No. 1 of the House Armed Services Committee, and assured McKee that her story was significant to tell, advice she took to heart many years later.
Upon Representative Fisher’s retirement in 1974, McKee joined the staff of another longtime Texas Democrat in the House, W. R. “Bob” Poage. Poage represented the 11th Congressional District of Texas, which then included the Waco metropolitan area, from 1937 until his retirement in 1978. “Mr. Agriculture”, as Poage was affectionately known, was a prominent member of the House Agriculture Committee. McKee remained on staff until Poage’s decision to retire.
In 1979, McKee became the Office Manager for Poage’s immediate successor, Democrat Marvin Leath. Leath, like Poage, represented Texas’ 11th Congressional District and remained in that seat until January 1991. McKee described in her autobiography how difficult it was to establish a “freshman” Representative: setting up a new office space, networking, etc., particularly after working for two of the most senior members of Congress.
In July 1980, McKee accepted a new position as the Executive Secretary for Republican Senator John Tower. Tower represented the state of Texas in the Senate from 1961 to 1985, and was a powerful force in that chamber, chairing the Senate Armed Services Committee from 1981 to 1985. Because of her employer’s chairmanship, McKee witnessed several aspects of military life including the christening of nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, the 1984 Farnborough Air Show in London, and graduation ceremonies at West Point. In 1989, when President George H. W. Bush nominated Tower for Secretary of Defense, the latter appointed McKee as the Confidential Assistant to the Secretary of Defense. Tower’s nomination ultimately failed, however, in a heated Senate debate.
When Senator Tower retired in 1985, McKee became an Executive Assistant to Senator John Warner of Virginia, former Secretary of the Navy under the Nixon Administration. In 1989, McKee ended her lengthy career in Washington, D.C. having served three U.S. Representatives and two U.S. Senators. Throughout her time in Washington, McKee remained a Texan through and through, participating in the Texas Breakfast Club and Texas State Society balls and dinners. She returned to San Angelo afterwards, earning her bachelor’s degree from Angelo State University in 1993. Several years later, in 2014, with the encouragement O.C. Fisher offered so many years before, McKee published an account of her experiences in Washington, D.C., In the Shadow of the Greats: From Texas’ Square Roots to Capitol Hill’s Inner Circle.
The Mattie Mae McKee papers deal primarily with the contents of her book and the various Congressmen for whom she worked. It tells the story of a dramatic change in the American political climate and offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the Texas politicians who represented the state for decades. Researchers will find correspondence, photographs, and programs that chronicle the life of this extraordinary woman as she encountered celebrities on the biggest stage, including George H. W. Bush, Charlton Heston, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barry Goldwater to name a few. McKee wrote in the preface of her work that, “every life story should be penned to plug another piece of history.” Now researchers can view McKee’s hand in history by checking out her personal collection.