In the autumn years of his life, 92-year-old keeps farming

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 30 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

Thurman Mackay, 92, uses a five-gallon bucket to help him get around and pick produce in his backyard garden in September.

Shanna Spicer

TAYLORSVILLE — Thurman Mackay spent the summer as he has spent many previous summers: on his hands and knees in his backyard, tending his garden on his half-acre lot in Taylorsville.

Many gardeners choose to get on their hands and knees as they care for their plants, but for Mackay, who will turn 93 in January and is unable to walk without help, it’s the only way.

“I was a farmer from the time I was born,” Mackay said. “And I’m still farming.”

He lives alone in a modest brick home just down the street from where he was born on Jan. 29, 1921.

“It’s not that often that anybody his age is that passionate to the point they’re out there crawling around in their garden,” said Shanna Spicer, who has been Mackay’s neighbor for 33 years. Her backyard borders the north side of Mackay’s garden.

Mackay starts each day between 5:30 and 6 a.m. He gets dressed, has his breakfast and, if the weather is good, heads outside.

To reach his backyard garden, he settles into his motorized wheelchair and drives it out the front door, down a ramp and around the house. When he reaches his destination, he scoots out of the chair and onto his hands and knees. He wears boots and kneepads to protect his legs.

He uses plastic five-gallon buckets to move himself along and to collect the day’s harvest. He works through the morning until his lunch in delivered by Meals on Wheels. But as soon as he’s finished eating, it’s back to work.

The fourth of eight siblings, including one who died in infancy, Mackay was a child when the Great Depression hit.

“Back in the Depression, I had to go barefoot until I was old enough so my folks could buy me a pair of shoes that fit,” he said.

His plight of not having shoes during part of his childhood was caused by more than the economy of the time. Mackay was born with a misshapen left foot that is two sizes smaller than his right foot.

That foot led to his being disqualified from military service on the three occasions he was drafted after graduating from Granite High School.

“I got 4-F three times,” he said. “I was up to Fort Douglas three different times, and they refused me to go to the army on account of that bum foot.”

His foot didn’t slow him down much in everyday life, however.

“When we were kids, we’d watch him dancing around,” said his daughter, Beth McBride. “He’d do a mean jitterbug.”

Mackay met his wife, Mary Winn, at a dance at the Coconut Grove in Salt Lake City in 1945. They were married in Farmington in 1946 and were later sealed in the Salt Lake Temple and had two kids. Mary had a stroke in her 30s and died in 1993, and their son, Larry, died in 2005.

Mackay’s ancestors were farmers, and he used to farm with his brother, uncle and father.

“The three of us went farming 100 acres plus the farm, and all the three of us worked for the county and state,” he said.

Politics made his father’s work difficult at times, Mackay said.

“Every time they had an election, a new Democrat or Republican changed, they let everybody go. He’d be off work until they hired him back,” he said.

As for him, he worked for Salt Lake County for 31 years. He started as a garbage man, then “graduated to roadwork.” He patched and plowed the streets before being moved to the electric crew, where he helped to put up new streetlights and replaced the ones that burned out.

“I was the truck driver and grunt, is what they called me,” he said. “I used to have to dig holes for the light posts, between 5½ and 6 feet deep.”

He never moved from Taylorsville.

While Mackay never let his “bum foot” slow him down, arthritis caught up with his other foot in the late '80s. He hasn’t walked without assistance for more than 15 years, and he relies on sticks, canes, a walker and his motorized wheelchair to get around.

Apart from problems with his feet, he’s had two back surgeries, a knee replacements, prostate cancer, skin cancer and surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. He had a pacemaker installed after he collapsed in his kitchen while on the phone with his daughter in 2005.

“The television wouldn’t work, and I was on the phone talking to her, telling her my television wouldn’t work, and then … I passed out,” Mackay said.

McBride thought it was the end for her dad.

“He had no heartbeat. In fact, the paramedics thought that he was dead,” she said. “They cut his clothes off, threw an oxygen mask on him and basically thought he was done. … They put the oxygen on him and it restarted his heart or something, and we found out he needed a pacemaker.”

Although his health has been good for the most part since then, he still manages to make his daughter nervous.

“You know what he does? If he gets tired, which is kind of scary, he would just lay down out in the garden. I’ve found him out there before, laying down,” she said.

In his garden, Mackay grows many kinds of fruits and vegetables, including zucchini, beans, corn, peas, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash, peppers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pickling cucumbers, beets, radishes and lemon cucumbers.

The garden produces much more food than he’s able to eat; some of it goes into storage for him and his nearby family, but much of it goes to neighbors and friends.

“He is the hardest-working man you could ever know,” McBride said. “He sets a very good example. He goes to church every Sunday even though it’s hard for him.”

Mackay is a member of the Taylorsville 10th Ward in the Taylorsville Central Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He gets a ride to church on Sundays to attend sacrament meeting. He sits in the back row of the chapel and passes out programs.

Also on Sundays, Mackay has dinner with family members who live in the area.

“He still cooks dinner to this day,” McBride said. “He does about 50 percent now; we help out.”

September frost killed most of the plants in Mackay’s garden this year, but in a way, it was perfect timing.

“He’s been kneeling and being on his knees so much that he actually had a really inflamed knee, and the doctor said he can’t do it anymore,” Spicer said. “But the season was pretty well winding down, so it didn’t bother him. I’m sure he’ll just gear up for next year.”

McBride said her dad spends winters watching TV, keeping himself busy and puttering around the house, waiting for spring and the next growing season.

Mackay knows he’s nearing the end of his life. As he put it, “I got two feet in the grave and my hands are on banana peels.”

But he doesn’t let it slow him down.

“It just doesn’t faze him,” Spicer said. “He just does what he’s always done. That’s what keeps him going. That’s his passion. That’s what he lives for, is just being out there with what he’s done his whole life. It gives him something to keep him going.”

McBride’s philosophy about her dad and his garden is a little simpler.

“Why does he do it?” she said. “Because there’s dirt. Because he’s a farmer.”

Email: rbrutsch@deseretnews.com

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