When visitors enter the Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at BLDG 92, they are usually greeted by two notable fixtures – a 22,500-pound anchor from the assault ship USS Austin, and the equally grand smile of John McGhee, a security guard who has served as the Center’s unofficial ambassador and greeter since it opened in 2011.
64-year old McGhee is retiring from the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation after eight years and stepping down from his post at BLDG 92 in order to spend more time with his young son, Johnathan.
Whether guiding out-of-towners to the exhibits or ushering children on a field trip, McGhee has a gift for spreading goodwill.
“I’m from the South, where we were taught to acknowledge each other and say ‘hello,’” says McGhee. “Then when I moved to the projects here in Brooklyn, I lived on the 20th floor. I was always the last person off the elevator. So I had daily conversations with everyone in the building. I’ve always been comfortable around people, always interested in hearing their stories.”
McGhee jokes that his high school town of Quitman, Georgia was so small, “the welcome sign and now-leaving sign were on the same pole.” After his mother and father separated, McGhee lived with an aunt, uncle and four young cousins in a trailer. “It was the height of segregation. When we went to movies, we’d have to sit in the balcony.”
After high school, McGhee moved north to “Kennedy Country” – Wellfleet, Massachusetts – where he took a position as a cook at a local Job Corps center. He followed that with a series of jobs in New York City as a lamp maker, security guard, UPS worker, and supervisor at the Project Renewal shelter on Bowery Street. “I looked after 200 clients there,” he says. “We were always busy.”
McGhee met his wife Deborah at the Bushwick Houses. They had four children before they got married, then two following. They shared a full and cheerful life together until Deborah died of breast cancer a decade ago. “She had a double mastectomy, but it was too late,” he says.
He learned about a job opening at the Navy Yard not through want ads or job boards, but by overhearing a conversation between men while riding the subway.
“One man was telling the others to go see a night supervisor about a job at the Navy Yard,” said McGhee. “I just decided to go see her as well. I got hired the next day.”
The affable McGhee was a logical choice for the BLDG 92 post when the Center opened.
“I’ve enjoyed watching it grow and evolve over the years,” he says. “Every day is a different adventure. Some days, you get veterans or retired Navy Yard ship makers who just want to tell you what they did here. I’ve learned a lot from them.”
“BLDG 92 visitors, local job seekers, and Yard tenants alike have come to depend on him for building directions, guidance on public transportation, information on how to book a tour or even what’s happening in the neighborhood,” says Aileen Chumard, BLDG 92’s Executive Director of Programs and Exhibits.
Though he’s retiring from the job, don’t be surprised to see McGhee at BLDG 92 on occasion. “I live just a few blocks away,” he says. “And this is a great place for locals or tourists to come explore or have a meal. You’ll see me around.”
McGhee’s many friends at the Navy Yard will be looking for him.
Franz Wisner is a freelance writer and communications consultant.