It seems a stretch when history professor Sandy McKinley says his doctoral work on the anarchists of the French Revolution sprang from his first foray into skateboarding as a 12-year-old kid in Dallas, Texas. But once he explains it, his journey from skater counterculture to 18th century counter-revolution seems entirely logical, if not inevitable. And presents a whole new twist on what it means, in both contexts, to be a radical.
"Athletics was always big in my house growing up," McKinley says. His father, Chuck McKinley, a former world-class tennis player and 1963 Wimbledon champ, coached his children's sports teams. But Chuck died in 1986, and soon after, Sandy lost interest in organized athletics. On the cusp of adolescence, he got into skateboarding because it was "kid-organized," he says. "Very individualized. You could do your own thing, and practicing and perfecting your skill was like play-no rules, just make it up as you go along."
McKinley skateboarded throughout high school where, he admits, "I didn't do very well." He developed a taste for punk rock, with its radical political overtones. He'd meet his friends for vert skating at Bachman Lake then head to Deep Ellum to hang with the punkers. "My mother was pretty disturbed by my activities," he says.
Then, in college a political theory professor introduced McKinley to the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. McKinley found himself fascinated with the anarchism of the time, and transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study the humanities.
By then, skateboarding had nosedived in popularity. McKinley caught a sprained ankle and decided it might be time to grow up, at least skateboarding-wise.
The viral sport would make a comeback as McKinley entered graduate school at Boston's Brandeis University.
"People were skateboarding in public again, parks for skateboarders were opening," he says. The activity provided a great way to de-stress as he went through a crisis. "I didn't know if graduate school was for me," he says. "But my father instilled in me a certain dedication and work ethic. He'd say that the difference between a successful person and someone who's not is that both dream big, but only one keeps working at it and doesn't let others get them down."
And McKinley knew this might be the last opportunity he'd have to read and study the great philosophers.
Since coming to St. Ambrose, that's one of the messages McKinley has shared with both his students and compatriots in boarding. "I tell my students, 'Love learning for learning's sake,' and encourage them to make use of this unique opportunity to follow their interests."
And his skateboarding friends? "I do my best to encourage kids to wear gear by setting an example and talking about how nearly every body part can be set or fixed without too much consequence-except your head. I tell them, 'I spent 12 years after high school working on my brain and getting a PhD. I don't want to mess that up in one afternoon.'"