Retired Dayton man to walk in graduation ceremony

Rick McKinney, 52, will graduate today with the Carson High School class of 2006.

Rick McKinney, 52, will graduate today with the Carson High School class of 2006.

Rick McKinney's graduation announcement declares him the valedictorian of the 2006 Carson High School class. But in parenthesis it explains: Of the 50-and-over age group.

Inside the air-conditioned expanse of his Dayton home Friday, the semi-retired 52-year-old tried on the royal blue graduation gown he'll wear in today's ceremony.

"I just ironed it," his wife, Amy, said as she helped him slip it over his shoulders.

Nearly three times the age of his fellow graduates, McKinney's successes and failures have compounded exponentially with his life experience.

At 9, he took his first drink. By 15, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and was sent to live with his older brother Mike.

For the first time, the school he attended tested Rick and found he was reading at a third-grade level.

"I consider that one of the biggest keys in my life," he says. "Someone actually sat down with me and tested me and said, 'Golly, no wonder you hate school, you can't keep up with the class.'"

He was assigned to read children's books and in eight months made up about a-year-and-a-half worth of credits.

But he couldn't abide by the "no drugs" rule in his brother's home, so by 16, he "hit the streets."

He collected unemployment for a while, then signed on as an apprentice carpenter.

When Rick went to turn in his final work to graduate from high school, the teacher was preoccupied, so he left.

"It wasn't a high priority."

He advanced from an apprentice carpenter to a journeyman, and gained an understanding of the trade.

At 28, he realized he could be successful, or he could be a drunk. He couldn't be both.

He sobered up and found he had a knack for entrepreneurship.

From floor covering to hotel renovation to real estate investments, his businesses grew and he hardly noticed he didn't have a diploma.

By 39, he had three successful businesses, a big house in Huntington Beach, Calif., and a nice car.

Although he had accumulated enough wealth to retire, a costly divorce set him back, and he had two kids to support.

Still, his battle with addiction seemed a lifetime ago, and he decided he could go back to drinking and using drugs occasionally.

"I thought I grew new legs," he says. "And I did it for a season. Then it threw me in the dirt for a number of years."

At first, the companies ran themselves. But not for long.

"With sobriety, I ran three companies great. With alcohol, I ran them into the ground."

It was another eight years before he decided to get help. He entered a 42-day treatment program and, once again, started over.

His focus had shifted some, and he was thinking more and more of ways he could contribute to society. He knew what it was like to "live in the gutter," and wanted to help others find their way out.

By this time, his children were 12 and 13 and starting to ask questions. They saw what he had built for himself and wanted to know how he did it. What college did he go to? What did he study?

He tried to avoid their questions, but finally explained that he had dropped out.

"I couldn't tell them they had to graduate when I hadn't. I had to lead by example."

When he and his wife moved to Carson City two years ago, shortly after getting married, he looked into an internship as a drug counselor.

They told him he would need a high school diploma.

At first, he thought he'd just need to complete the one credit he was short originally. But things had changed.

Computer classes were now required, along with about a half-dozen more.

The obvious course of action was to earn his GED. For Rick, that wasn't good enough.

"I have a really extremist personality."

That extremism carried over to his grades, as he insisted on nothing short of straight-As.

"He got As and wanted to know why they weren't A plusses," his wife laughs.

Rick attended adult-education classes in the afternoons at the Corbett facility and evening classes at Carson High School, surrounded by students young enough to be his children.

"Everybody was pretty gracious toward me," he said.

And, in return, he was encouraging to those who were struggling to continue in class, or considering dropping out.

"I'd just tell them to grind it out. Get in there and take care of it."

Rick's first goal was to beat his son, Michael, 19, to the tassel, but Michael graduated in Huntington Beach last year.

He and his wife are flying to Southern California to attend his 17-year-old daughter, Michelle's, high school graduation Wednesday.

Rick debated whether to participate in today's ceremony, but his counselor Diana Stater and wife encouraged him to take part.

"I'm so very proud of him for finishing," Amy, says. "I think it's a huge deal - and we're going to make it that tomorrow."

After graduation, they are planning a backyard barbecue with neighbors, friends and family, including Rick's mom, Lois, and brothers Pat and Mike who will all be flying in.

His wife says finding the perfect gift for the 52-year-old high school graduate can be difficult.

"I went to buy him a card the other day, and they didn't have anything for husbands."

Rick isn't sure whether he'll go after his dream right away of becoming a drug counselor, or pursue another business venture first.

With his diploma, his choices have expanded.

"Now I can take any road I want," he says.

And there are subtle rewards.

"I think it's important that my kids can see the character their dad has."

• Contact reporter Teri Vance at or 881-1272.

If you go

WHAT: Carson High School graduation

WHEN: 10 a.m. today

WHERE: Carson High School, 1111 N. Saliman Road




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