McKee, Robert Eugene, Sr. (1889–1964)

By: Irene Stanley and Duffy Stanley

Type: Biography

Published: April 1, 1995

Updated: July 31, 2020

Robert Eugene (Gene) McKee, contractor, was born in Lake View (Chicago), Illinois, on June 15, 1889, the youngest son of James David and Alice Elizabeth (Cleve) McKee. His family moved when he was very young to St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended the Manual Training School of Washington University. He left St. Louis as a young man to live on his Uncle "Bud" Cleve's ranch at Elk, New Mexico. After a short stay he moved to El Paso, Texas, in 1910 and began his career in the engineering and construction field. He married Gladys Evelyn Woods on September 20, 1911. They had six sons and two daughters. After working as a draftsman and engineer for the El Paso Milling Company and the engineering department of the city of El Paso, McKee began his own construction company in 1913 and soon became one of America's most important contractors. By 1935 he had built the naval docks and the Marine Hospital at the naval base in San Diego. In Hawaii he built various military facilities, including the power plant at Pearl Harbor and the Air Corps Double Hangars and a 3,200-man barracks at Hickam Field. He was also constructing officers' quarters, warehouses, air corps machine shops, and an engine-test facility at Hickam Field. All were substantially complete when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During World War II McKee built the largest military center in Texas, Camp Bowie, near Brownwood, in a record time of ten months. He constructed large military installations in the Panama Canal Zone and in the Territory of Hawaii. During one year he had 42,000 workers on his payroll. He was chosen to be responsible for building the facilities for the Los Alamos Atomic Energy Project in New Mexico. Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves, officer in charge of the atomic project, awarded McKee the Army-Navy "E" for high achievement in October 1945. In the 1950s Mckee constructed the Cadet Quarters Complex, the Air Force Chapel, and several other large facilities at the United States Air Force Academy. In 1959 he was the major contractor for the new Los Angeles International Airport. While building a variety of major projects in thirty-five of the fifty states, he kept his headquarters and home in El Paso, with branch offices in Dallas, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and the Panama Canal Zone.

McKee's company built a large percentage of El Paso's major structures, including offices, hospitals, banks, schools, churches, military installations, and facilities at the University of Texas at El Paso. Two of his pet projects were the Austin High School stadium, named for him, and the Southwestern Children's Home. He was a liberal donor to many projects. His firm became one of the largest individually owned contracting firms in the United States, when in 1950 he incorporated his construction operations. His growth and success were directly related to his philosophy of giving his personal attention to detail, his high regard for employees as individuals, and a demand for work of the highest quality.

The Southwest was always of great interest to McKee, who collected arts and crafts of Southwestern Indian tribes from Taos, Santa Fe, and other art colonies. He became acquainted with many of the artists and their works. He and his wife visited them in their homes and corresponded with them regularly over the years. The McKees acquired an outstanding collection of Southwestern and Indian art, which was established as the McKee Collection of Paintings. The McKees helped develop the El Paso Museum of Art and through a friendship with Rush Kress became instrumental in the acquisition of part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection of paintings for permanent display in El Paso. McKee was appointed city alderman in El Paso in 1928. He was a vestryman at St. Clement's Episcopal Church, a thirty-second-degree Scottish Rite Mason, and active in El Maida Shrine. He was a board member of the El Paso Museum of Art and Southwestern Children's Home. He was appointed colonel and aide-de-camp to the governor of New Mexico in 1947. The city of El Paso honored him as a "conquistador" in 1960, and he was inducted into the El Paso County Historical Society's Hall of Honor in 1967. He was a champion of the underprivileged. In 1952 he established the Robert E. and Evelyn McKee Foundation, a nonprofit, charitable corporation for the continuation of his charitable goals within the United States. About 1961 McKee married a second time. He died on October 21, 1964, in El Paso, still active as chairman of the board of Robert E. McKee, General Contractor, Incorporated.

Houston Post, October 22, 1964. Herman Liebreich, "Mr. Robert E. McKee, Sr.," Password 12 (Winter 1967).

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Time Periods:
  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Irene Stanley and Duffy Stanley, “McKee, Robert Eugene, Sr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 1, 1995
July 31, 2020