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Dorothy McKinnon, Wyandanch education advocate and community activist, dies at 80

Dorothy McKinnon, a longtime Wyandanch education advocate and

Dorothy McKinnon, a longtime Wyandanch education advocate and community activist, died at 80 on May 9, Mother's Day. Credit: Fitzgerald McKinnon

In 1979, Dorothy McKinnon was walking picket lines with teachers on strike in Wyandanch.

The weekslong strike represented a prong of passion for the woman called "Dottie," who was not in the education field but spent her life advocating for it.

A community advocate who was uncompromising in her strong belief in education, McKinnon died of natural causes on Mother's Day, May 9. She was 80.

Having grown up as a Black child in the Jim Crow-era South in Bessemer, Alabama, education was her top priority.

She served as Wyandanch PTA president from 1986 to 1990, and was a founding member of the Wyandanch Scholarship Committee, which was established to help economically disadvantaged students pay for basic needs not covered by college scholarships such as books, food and clothing. She was involved with the Wyandanch Tax Payers Committee and the Wyandanch Youth Football program.

"She was very strict when it came to education," said her daughter Jackie Parham, who lives in Michigan. When she and her brother arrived home from school, homework and chores came before anything else, she said.

McKinnon encouraged her son and daughter to stay active in school and the community, and believed that education would be the key to a better lifestyle for her children, Parham said. She and her brother both are college graduates.

After McKinnon's death, her son Fitz McKinnon said he found himself in awe of the depth of her extensive book collection. There were self-help books, cultural books, cookbooks and books about Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Time not spent interacting with the community was spent reading or cooking at home, where Dorothy McKinnon specialized in salmon and baked ziti.

"She was a friend to everybody," her daughter said. "But you knew she was still a homebody." In her later years, McKinnon pursued her passion for traveling. She traveled via cruise ship and also visited casinos, her son said.

The softer side of McKinnon allowed for fun to balance sternness. Her role as a grandmother involved stocking her house with her family’s favorite foods. In her kitchen, comforting chicken, rice and potato salad complemented sugary Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, ice cream and cookies.

"She was stubborn in some ways, but at the end of the day, she was willing to work with you and tell you that she was always there no matter what," said her granddaughter Sedalia McKinnon, 16, of Wheatley Heights. If Sedalia told her of a problem she was facing, her grandmother would always offer her input — "sometimes whether you wanted to hear it or not."

Dorothy McKinnon’s particular brand of nurture blended sweet with stringent.

"My mom was like the strict disciplinarian, but she was cool," said Fitz McKinnon. "You could have a relationship with her, you just needed to do what you were supposed to do. And if you didn’t, you heard about it."

Town of Babylon Supervisor Rich Schaffer recalled meeting "Miss Dottie" when he was working for Patrick Halpin, the former assemblyman and Suffolk County executive, in the 1980s. McKinnon was looking to challenge her home’s assessment, and Schaffer was working to put together clinics where experts would teach homeowners how to challenge their assessments.

"She lived in a neighborhood in Wyandanch called the ‘tree streets,’ " Schaffer said, describing a cluster of streets with names like Chestnut and Walnut. "She described it as a really tough part of Wyandanch, but that she would take me around and she would make sure that nobody bothered me and I got all the information I needed."

McKinnon became Schaffer’s unofficial bodyguard, as he said she proudly declared, and the two would go door to door together. The relationship endured, with McKinnon acting as a maternal influence on Schaffer, who was just several years older than her own son. She would send Schaffer annual birthday cards and, "every now and then," grab him by the ear for a talking-to.

"She was like a second mother to me, and to many people in the political and governmental world in Babylon Town," Schaffer said. "She just had that way about her."

Like "Moses parting the Red Sea," McKinnon would walk down the street, Schaffer said.

"Everyone’s at attention for Miss Dottie," he said.

In addition to her son and daughter, McKinnon is survived by a brother, two sisters, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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