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Fredrick L. McKissack: Civil engineer became renown children's book author

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 2, 2013 - Col. Hardenbergh noted the birth of another slave with the same indifference he might have shown a calf or lamb.

The line from Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I a Woman, the fictionalized account of the life of a freed slave who became an abolitionist, embodies the crisp, enthralling style of Patricia McKissack and her husband, Fredrick McKissack.

For more than 20 years, Mr. McKissack, a civil engineer by training, was the research half of an award-winning duet who produced a raft of children’s books that dispel the myth of an African-American history bereft of dignity and achievement.

Mr. McKissack had undergone several years of kidney dialysis. He died Sunday (April 28, 2013) at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield. He was 73.

His funeral services will be Friday, May 3, at United Methodist Church in Kirkwood.

Together, the McKissacks wrote more than 100 books. They explored slavery and its offspring, Jim Crow, the upheaval of the civil rights era that they knew firsthand and the lives of African-American martyrs, scholars, inventors and celebrities.

Dream weavers

At a crossroads in their lives, the McKissacks sat in their car, mulling the future. It was 1982. She had been writing for years and had managed to complete only one unpublished book. She wanted to write fulltime and needed her husband’s help. He said, “OK, let's do that. We'll take it as far as we can go. We'll take it day by day.”

He was ready to help her realize a dream just as she had helped him make a go of his construction business. But her dream soon became his dream and one of the nation’s most prolific and successful writing teams was born.

They set out to fill the void of missing African-American history and to counter stereotypes of popular children’s books such as The Story of Little Black Sambo. "These images,” Mr. McKissack said, “last a lifetime.”

They were images he knew all too well.

Fredrick Lemuel McKissack was born in Nashville, Tenn., on Aug. 12, 1939. He was the son and grandson of “brilliant” architects that racism limited to designing small churches in the black community.

He attended segregated schools. Nashville’s public facilities didn’t begin desegregating until 1960; Mr. McKissack had a hand in it.

He entered the U.S. Marine Corps after high school and enrolled in Tennessee State University in Nashville when he returned. The Nashville student-led lunch counter sit-ins and marches were deemed among the most effective desegregation efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.

Mr. McKissack recalled his first sit-in in his 1990 profile in Lift Every Voice and Sing: St. Louis African Americans in the Twentieth Century.

“I did not get arrested, but I will never forget a shotgun being pointed at me at Woolworth’s,” he said.

In 1964, he married Patricia L’Ann Carwell, whom he’d known most of his life. Both graduated from Tennessee State. As a child, she had lived in St. Louis for several years. The couple decided to begin married life here.

Mr. McKissack worked as a civil engineer for St. Louis and the U.S. Army. He later owned his own general contracting company. She taught English and edited children’s books until they embarked on a joint literary career.

“We never thought that we both could make a living writing,” Mr. McKissack said in a recent interview with Scholastic, one of their publishers, “It was never a goal because we had no idea such a thing was possible.”

Most inspiring

The impossible happened. They introduced tens of thousands of young people to a history and culture that had been long neglected.

They wrote of bravery in Rebels Against Slavery: American Slave Revolts; the courage of union organizer A. Phillip Randolph in A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter, and of faith in Let My People Go: Bible Stories Told by a Freeman of Color. Hidden glory was revealed in Black Diamond: Story of the Negro Baseball League, and they told the little-known story of freedom on the high seas in Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers.

These books, like many others, won the Coretta Scott King Award. Their work garnered numerous awards, including the C.S. Lewis Medal, the Caldecott Award, the Jane Addams Peace Award, the Newbery Award and the Regina Medal.

In 2009, the two were named among the NAACP’s “100 Most Inspiring St. Louisans.”

In 2000, when a Lindbergh School District elementary school student asked how long the McKissacks intended to continue writing books, Mr. McKissack replied, “Until we drop over.”

In addition to his wife of 48 years, Mr. McKissack’s survivors include three sons, Fredrick L. McKissack Jr. of Fort Wayne, Ind., Robert McKissack of St. Louis, and John McKissack of Memphis; three brothers, Lewis W. McKissack and Joel McKissack, both of Nashville, and Moses A. McKissack of St. Louis; and five grandchildren.

Visitation will be 9-10:45 a.m. Friday at Kirkwood United Methodist Church, 201 West Adams Avenue, in Kirkwood. The funeral will follow at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Forever Oak Cemetery.

Memorials would be appreciated to the National Kidney Foundation, http://www.kidney.org/, or the United Negro College Fund, http://www.uncf.org/.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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