Family mourns father, son dead in hunting accident
Published: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2004 at 12:50 a.m.
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS - On Thanksgiving morning Ronald McKenna II, 33, planned to make his pride-and-joy dish, broccoli casserole, and smoke a large turkey for a gathering at the family's home in the scrub woods east of Keystone Heights.
"He bragged about his casserole, but I had never tasted it," said "Little Ronnie's" mother, Marie McKenna, 52. "That was one of the last things he talked about that morning."
But first he and his 54-year-old father, "Big Ronnie" as some family members call him, were going to go hunting, or at least to check for tracks of a large buck Little Ronnie had seen in the woods behind his parents' house.
"Be careful" might have been the last words Marie McKenna said to them Thanksgiving morning. She can't really remember, she said Tuesday afternoon shortly before going to a funeral home in Green Cove Springs for a twin viewing - of her husband and son.
In an accident of unimaginable horror about 8 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, the elder Ronald McKenna shot what he thought was a deer within earshot of the house. It wasn't a deer, but his son.
While trying to revive his fatally wounded son, McKenna had a heart attack and died. In what appears to have been a final act of fatherly love and protection, McKenna, a grandfather of nine, had removed his shirt and placed it over his son.
"When he realized what he had done, I guess his heart couldn't take the pain and the loss of our son," Marie McKenna said of the man she fell in love with at 17 and with whom she celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary on Sept. 27. "He probably couldn't live with himself."
After the loss of her soul mate and only son, she doesn't know how she'll go on either, she said.
"I don't know if I'll be able to carry on," she said, trying desperately to remain composed as she talked in the sandy drive outside her blue frame house.
She didn't want to talk inside the house, where her three daughters, other family and friends remained in shock over the tragedy.
Her husband, a carpenter, had built the house with help from their son when Little Ronnie was about 16.
"They were very close," McKenna said, her long, straw-colored hair glinting in the low autumn sun. "They were more fishing buddies than hunting buddies."
In recent years she and her husband worked together installing windows and doors for Lowe's.
"We were an awesome team," she said on a day when her inexpressible grief somehow was easier to hold at bay than it had been in previous days.
Their son was a tile setter for Central Florida Tile and Marble, and worked out of Gainesville.
"Master" tile setter, his mother and older sister, Michelle, said as their mutual hugs helped stifle each other's tears.
"He could set tile so beautiful," his mother said. "He was so proud of his tile work. Fishing and working, that's what he loved."
She said she and her husband met in their hometown of Jacksonville when she was 17 and he was 19. The attraction was immediate, she said. And forever.
"He was just so handsome," she said. "He still was."
They named their third child after his father - Ronald McKenna "the second." Neither had a middle name.
"He was not 'junior.' Ronnie did not want his son to be a junior," McKenna said.
The family moved to Keystone Heights more than 20 years ago. Their son attended Keystone Heights High School, and graduated about 1990.
He had a girlfriend, his mother said, and when they had a tiff, sometimes he'd come and live at home for a while. When he died, he was living with his parents in the house he helped build.
"Women loved him because he was so handsome," McKenna said. "Just like his father."
Although Little Ronnie would rather fish than eat, his mother said, he was as much a cowboy as a fisherman.
"He loved riding his horse, Dixie," she said. "My husband was becoming more of a cowboy. He'd ride Goldie, and he and Ronnie would ride as fast as they could. They wanted me to ride with them, but I can't ride that fast."
McKenna said she saw her husband leave the house Thursday morning shortly after their son had gone out to check on deer tracks. The elder McKenna didn't have a gun when she saw him, she said, and must have come back in the house to get it.
"Neither one of them knew the other was out there," McKenna said. "My husband's eyesight was poor because he had diabetes, and he probably saw movement and shot."
She learned after her husband's death that he had severe blockage of the arteries to his heart. She said her sorrow is tinged with anger over the fact that his disease was not diagnosed earlier.
"He shouldn't have died," McKenna said. "I'm angry because he had regular check-ups and it was never caught."
Her son had no children, she said, but wanted to have them someday.
"Now I wish so bad he had a child," she said, her lips quivering and eyes wincing at what she regards as another heartbreaking consequence of that horrible Thanksgiving Day.
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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