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Meet Susan McKee, the new first lady of Rhode Island

A lifelong educator, she’ll continue to teach part time while working on initiatives for the state

Susan McKee, center, is Rhode Island’s new first lady. She is pictured from left to right with Laura Clifford, her future daughter in law; son Matthew; husband Gov. Dan McKee; and daughter Kara.Office of the Governor of Rhode Island/Handout

PROVIDENCE — Susan McKee has been a teacher her entire career. But the past year has been more challenging than ever: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit a year ago, Highlander Charter School in Providence, like schools around the state, went remote.

McKee is a reading specialist there. That’s a hands-on, close-up job, one that doesn’t translate so easily to Zoom with young kids. They made it work, though, and she returned to the classroom in the fall.

Now, with temperatures rising and vaccinations accelerating, McKee has a new role in Rhode Island on top of her part-time teaching job. Her husband, Dan, became the 76th governor of Rhode Island last week. Once he was sworn in, the longtime teacher assumed a significant role, as first lady and confidante to the governor, in a year when education will be at the forefront of the state’s recovery from the pandemic.

“It is taking a little bit of getting used to,” McKee said in a Zoom interview Monday. “I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet. But it will.”


She’s never taken much of a public-facing role, and family members describe her as modest and averse to publicity. But she was there at Dan McKee’s official inauguration ceremony after former Governor Gina Raimondo was sworn in as the new U.S. commerce secretary, holding the family Bible, as she had when he was sworn in as the mayor of Cumberland, Rhode Island, two decades ago.

There were more cameras and reporters here this time than back in Cumberland. Also, as she and her daughter Kara remarked, they’d never before had to think about what color masks to wear.

McKee, who is from Cumberland, first met her husband in school, in an accounting class at Cumberland High School, class of 1969. The teacher in that class had arranged the students in alphabetical order, which put Susan, nee McGill, at a table next to the tall basketball player who she knew her time cheerleading. They clicked instantly.


After high school, Susan McKee went on to Rhode Island College, then became a classroom teacher in Cumberland. She worked there for 25 years, teaching at just about every grade level. She’s also earned two masters degrees, one in elementary education and another in reading. Ten years ago, McKee became a part-time reading specialist at Highlander.

“Being able to teach kids how to read, I think that’s pretty special,” McKee said. “Just to see their progress — I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

When the school went remote last March, her family got first-hand insight into how she operates as a teacher. She’d always come home with anecdotes. Now, daughter Kara got to see it.

“She was on with one particular student who was just so happy to see my mom,” Kara McKee said. “That seemed to be the highlight of her day.”

Kara said she’s never once heard her mom raise her voice or swear. One of her nicknames, Kara said, is “Saint Susan.” Another, Kara said, is “Stylish Susan.” When she’d visit her parents, Kara said, she would often borrow her mom’s clothes. At work at apparel and home fashion company TJX, people would compliment her outfits, forcing her to confess that they were really her mother’s.

Rhode Island faces a number of education-related challenges, not all of which are related to the pandemic. Susan McKee said she’ll often share her perspective on things as a teacher with Dan McKee, but — and all McKees interviewed for this story stressed this, including Dan — the governor makes up his own mind and has plenty of other connections to education and local communities. Usually, they agree on things, she said, which helps.


“If I didn’t agree, I would let him know,” she said. “But most of the time, we do agree.”

One of Dan McKee’s recent decisions on which they agree: making teachers and other education staff eligible for vaccines. He’d been pressing the issue since even before he became governor, and even before Biden’s administration told states to do so. It went against the guidance that the state was putting out at the time.

“I think I helped a little,” Susan McKee said about her role in his thinking on teacher vaccines, “but it was basically him.”

Like the first lady of the United States, Dr. Jill Biden, McKee plans on continuing to teach. (McKee and Biden have never spoken, but McKee just finished her fellow first lady’s book.) She works part-time at the charter school, in the mornings, so she’ll have time in the afternoons to pursue a statewide portfolio that might include pro-literacy and anti-littering initiatives.

Susan and Dan live in Cumberland with Dan’s mom, Helen Willa McKee, who is 92 and recently was fully vaccinated, a relief after a year of worry.


Susan and Dan also were recently vaccinated with their first shots. Susan McKee went online and got them appointments. They were eligible not as a teacher and governor, but as people over 65 years old.

It’s been a tough year, in schools, in homes, everywhere. But things are looking up. Their son Matthew is getting married in Newport to fiancee Laura in the summer. The math is promising, too: two weeks after their own second dose will be Easter weekend.

On Tuesday morning, as McKee the teacher was in school, McKee the governor was preparing to expand vaccine eligibility to teachers and education professionals. Wearing an “RI Teachers Rock” face mask, the governor set out an aggressive goal: get the approximately 18,500 teachers and other school professionals at least one dose by the end of the month.

He said in a phone interview after the news conference that he’s inspired by his wife, but will chart his own course. He, too, has an education degree. He also taught while he was a student. It wasn’t his calling, though it was hers.

“I’m driven by what’s in the best interests of the kids and the students,” he said, “and Susan and I share that.”

Brian Amaral can be reached at Follow him @bamaral44.