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Washington Voices

Ski instructor, 82, works hard through life’s ups and downs

Thu., March 3, 2011

Ask Harry McCartney how come he has had such a successful life and he’ll say “the village raised the kid.”

McCartney, 82, is retired from the oil and insurance business, and a frequently requested alpine ski instructor at 49 Degrees North. Come October, he will have been married to his wife Evelyn McCartney for 60 years. The two share a tastefully decorated modern house on a bluff in northern Spokane, and as they sit there in matching recliners looking out over a beautiful, snow covered backyard, they look like they’ve never had a difficult day in their lives.

But looks are deceiving.

When McCartney was a child his mom couldn’t take care of him.

“From when I was 8 until I turned 17, I lived with 14 different families,” he said. “Most families were good, but some worked me over pretty hard.” He never finished ninth grade because farm work took so much of his time. Just before joining the Navy in 1946, he finally settled with a family on a small cattle and wheat farm in Chesaw, Wash.

“I got picked on a lot as a kid. I would get home and bawl and kick the ground and scream I wish I had a dad,” he said. “But I didn’t. When I was young I felt like I did it all on my own.” He remained in contact with his mom – and grandma told him who his dad was – but he didn’t have much family support.

Sometimes he’d sleep in the park, and the sheriff would pick him up and let him spend the night at the jail, where it was warm.

The McCartneys met in 1951 while Harry was working at a funeral home in Wenatchee.

“He was always up and going in the morning, he wasn’t particular about what he did as long as he’d make money,” said Evelyn, who came from a cattle and dairy family of 10 children. “When we first got married, he worked for $250 a month and dad loaned us a milk cow so we could have milk.”

Among Harry’s many jobs were all sorts of farm work, punching pots at Alcoa Aluminum, making apple crates, working for the railroads, and mixing cement.

“The worst job I ever had?” said Harry. “That would be putting up hay. I hated putting up hay. It was loose back then and I hated that job. That and working for someone else.” He smiles mischievously at his wife.

In 1959, the McCartneys purchased a Standard Oil Distributorship in Harrington, which is in Lincoln County, with a loan from her family.

“We couldn’t borrow money because we didn’t have anything,” said Evelyn. “And then the truck burned down – we weren’t sure we’d done the right thing.”

By 1960, the family counted two daughters, Peggy and Judy, and a newborn son, Tom.

With a young family to feed, a lot was riding on getting the oil business off the ground.

So they replaced the truck and went at it.

“I still deliver oil and gas in my dreams,” Harry said. “I remember the routes, the places and the names, all these years later.” The two expanded their business in 1968 when they purchased an insurance agency in Harrington.

“Many of the places we delivered oil to ended up becoming insurance customers, too,” he said.

Their son Tom drove the oil truck as soon as he got a learners permit, with Mom riding along and keeping track of deliveries.

Yet life was far from a bed of roses.

In 1977, Tom was killed when he lost control of his car on a rural road.

“He was a basketball player and he wanted to learn how to ski, but his coach said to not do it because he could get injured,” Harry said. “So I told him to wait and we’d do it next fall. Well, then he was killed.”

That fall, daughter Judy got her dad a gift certificate for ski lessons and the two went together.

“I learned to ski when I was 47,” he said.

To spend more time at 49 Degrees North the McCartneys built a cabin there in 1979, and two years later they added another insurance agency – this time based in nearby Sprague.

Before he became a full-time ski instructor in 1991, Harry was a beekeeper for some years.

He had gotten a few hives, but no bees, from a friend and he soon figured out he could collect swarms of honey bees in empty buildings. Evelyn is allergic to bees, but she still went with him. However, on one such trip angry bees attacked the gloves Evelyn was wearing, stinging her terribly.

“That’s the one time I really yelled at him,” she said, laughing. Yet Harry soon filled his hives and processed 2,200 pounds of honey during their last beekeeping season.

During the 1990s, the couple spent winters living at 49 Degrees North, and Harry dedicated his time to ski instruction.

Evelyn McCartney isn’t a big skier, but enjoys time on the mountain and at the lodge.

He has won lots of accolades for his ability to teach and as recently as last year’s ski season, he received the ski instructor of the year award.

“I’ve never met someone who’s not teachable,” said Harry, who’s now teaching his great-granddaughter to ski.

He teaches young and old alike.

“I think I’m pretty patient. I don’t get mad. I try to encourage people instead,” he said.

Sadly, the couple’s daughter Judy – the one who got Harry skiing – didn’t live to see how much joy skiing brought her dad. She was killed in a car accident near Tacoma in 2001.

“I don’t know what to say about those accidents,” said Evelyn. “We lost two kids in accidents that were both kind of strange.” The McCartneys look at each other before the conversation moves on.

They’ve traveled a lot together including a trip to New Zealand where he got to go bungee jumping.

“I was not going,” said Evelyn, with strong emphasis. “I could barely watch him do it, but I did.”

He chuckles in the other chair, then gets up and gets framed photos from the famous bungee jump day.

“I liked it,” he said matter-of-factly. “I went tandem paragliding too. That was something else when you run toward the cliff and you see it drop off and you think, ‘I wonder how this is going to work out?’ And then the wind lifts you up.”

And Harry still hasn’t stopped working.

He has a steady gig with the state trapping nuisance animals including skunks and raccoons.

“I’d come home smelling pretty bad in the beginning,” he said, eyeing his wife. “But I figured it out.”

Harry doesn’t attribute his success to being an especially good salesperson or businessperson.

“I think I just get along with people well,” he said, smiling, “or maybe it was all just luck?”

Evelyn laughs and adds they’ve agreed on most of their business decisions even when they seemed a little risky.

“We encouraged each other,” Evelyn said. “And we have never really done anything without asking the other one about it.”

So does Harry believe a teen today could do what he began doing more than 60 years ago?

“I think it would be hard for a kid today. You have to have better education,” he said. “But I do think that it’s doable – if you are determined to do better for yourself, you can.”

Then the McCartneys look at each other and say almost at the same time:

“Life is good. Life is really good.”

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