Losing a loved one is difficult and issues involving that person’s financial affairs may compound an already stressful circumstance. By helping people through these difficult times is Bernard “Bernie” McKay (91) has found his calling.
As an attorney for Frost Brown Todd, LLC, in Cincinnati, McKay specializes in estate planning, trust and probate law. He helps people walk through the process of settling financial matters upon incapacitation or death and all the tax hurdles that come with it, including charitable contributions and family succession plans. It’s the field of law McKay envisioned himself practicing during his undergraduate years at Morehead State University.
McKay considers it an honor to be there for families in these moments.
“I’ve been in hospital rooms where people are on their death beds. It’s a sacred position because they have to trust you,” McKay said. “You deal with all types of people and it’s meaningful.”
Growing up in Maysville, Kentucky, as one of nine brothers, Bernard “Bernie” McKay had an interest in law from a very early age but was content not to pursue it.
“I really didn’t believe I could do it because none of my family were lawyers and I just thought that was something that was out of reach for us,” he said. “That wasn’t in my future.”
He knew he wanted to go to college since many of his brothers either attended or graduated from nearby Morehead State University. Even as he admired the work of his town’s well-known attorneys like the late Bernard Hargett and the late Johnny McNeill, he was content to capitalize on his strengths in math and go to college to become an accountant.
His first real-world experience crunching numbers was helping his father, Patrick McKay Jr., and his mother, Jane, manage the books of their combined photography and flower business in high school. It was also the first time he got the unexpected push from his father to try being a lawyer during a disagreement they had at his business
“He said, ‘You should go down this road,’” McKay recalled. “I remember, my own father wants me to be a lawyer. That gave me permission…let’s go down this path.”
McKay received a full-tuition scholarship to MSU. On the way to earning his bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1991, McKay became a member of Theta Chi Fraternity in his junior year and was elected vice president of MSU’s Student Government Association (SGA) his senior year. He said he always felt a sense of community and connection with the faculty, staff and administration, whether it was MSU retiree Susette Redwine (78) inviting SGA officers over to her house for dinner or seeing how then-President Dr. C. Nelson Grote greeted MSU students on campus by name.
“Before I went, I just felt like I was going to get an education and it was strictly business, but when I got there, the people cared about more than just my education. All those people did it in their own way…encouraging me and just helping me believe in my ability.”-Bernard McKay
McKay started to realize his potential to get accepted into law school in the spring semester of his junior year. After secretly taking the LSAT exam, he got his acceptance letter. He enrolled at the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) in Highland Heights, where he graduated in 1994. After graduation and through his connections he made at NKU, he was hired across the Ohio River at Frost Brown Todd, LLC, in Cincinnati, where he has practiced law for the past 25 years and has been named The Best Lawyers in America list from 2006 to 2019. He believes he excels in an area an area of law that caters to his strength with numbers and with people.
“I needed a human element of the practice…but I also wanted to have the technical,” he said. “It was kind of good for my personality and background.”
As someone who spent his law career helping others in a time of need, he started to ponder his legacy and wonder how he could help students from his alma mater in financial need while maintaining that human connection. This led to the establishment of the Bernard L. McKay Award for Excellence for LGBT Scholars in 2014.
Scholarship criteria include recipients being incoming undergraduate students who self-identify as either Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) who have demonstrated a commitment to equality for the LGBT community through either membership in gay-straight alliances, participating in community projects or similar actions indicating their dedication to improving equality for the LGBT community. Preference is given to LGBT students from Mason, Bracken, Robertson and Fleming counties.
McKay admits he struggled growing up gay in a Roman Catholic household in a small town. He threw himself into his schooling and didn’t feel comfortable coming out later in life. He always believed his sexual orientation potentially presented a roadblock to his career prospects. His establishment of this scholarship was a way to give LGBT students in Kentucky a better chance for success.
“I wanted to help highlight the LGBT issue and I wanted to recognize and award somebody because they were LGBT, not despite it,” he said. “I wanted to kind of say, you can do whatever you want. If you want to be a lawyer, you want to be a nurse, you want to be a social worker, LGBT isn’t a barrier for that.”
McKay has also taken an active role in the scholarship, serving as a mentor and maintaining contact with the scholarship recipient and their family through the student’s four years as an MSU undergrad.
“That aspect, I didn’t realize how rewarding it was going to be for me,” he said. “Don’t wait ‘til you’re dead (to establish a scholarship), do it now. It will give you so much joy and pride and it will make your darkest day bright.”
McKay said his interactions with the people he encounters in his practice and the students he helps at MSU are transactional. Whether it’s giving his money, his abilities, his time, his attention or his empathy, he is getting as much out of it as he is putting in.
“I did consciously choose to do things that I thought were meaningful to me because this is my path and part of this is showing gratitude,” he said. “I’d like people to realize that I hope by doing good and helping others, I’m showing my gratitude for that and setting an example for those to help follow.”
Part of the reason why McKay is so fond of MSU is because attending is a family tradition. He has several brothers that are MSU alumni, including Leo A. McKay (79), Joseph G. McKay (80), W. Dennis McKay -director of MSU at Mt. Sterling (86), Victor C. McKay (88) and the late Patrick J. McKay IV (89). He also has nieces and nephews that are either MSU alumni or current MSU students, including Jacob A. McKay (15), Allison McKay (16), William McKay (18) and Victoria McKay, a senior from Maysville.
For more information on this scholarship, or to establish your own, contact MSU’s Office of Alumni Relations and Development at 606-783-2033, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit alumni.moreheadstate.edu to contribute.
To learn more about MSU’s legal studies program, contact the Department of History, Philosophy, Politics, Global Studies and Legal Studies at email@example.com, 606-783-2655 or visit www.moreheadstate.edu/study/legalstudies.