It hurts to even think about Gladys and Byron McKaig’s final moments.
The elderly Squirrel Valley couple died trying in vain to escape the heat and smoke of the devastating Erskine Fire.
Their deaths were a horrible tragedy.
But they died as they had lived — together.
“They were each other’s half,” said Susan McKaig, Byron McKaig’s daughter. “They loved each other very much and the family is taking comfort from the fact that they passed together.”
The couple was very well known in the area, having lived there more than 30 years.
Byron was 81 and Gladys was 90.
They met through their mutual love, the church.
Byron had come to the Lake Isabella area in the early 1980s to live with his parents as he transitioned through a divorce.
He was an Episcopal priest, later Anglican, and began working at a local church where Gladys was the organist.
As music was another of their mutual loves, the two were a “perfect match,” Susan McKaig said.
They were married in July 1984.
Gladys had come to the Kern River Valley some years before Byron. She and her first husband ran Erickson Realty.
After her first husband’s death, Gladys continued working in real estate. Later, she designed the Squirrel Valley house where she and Byron lived.
After they married, Byron began pastoring at St. Luke’s in Bakersfield.
They would drive down for services every Sunday. Byron would preach and Gladys would play the organ, Susan McKaig said.
He retired from St. Luke’s about eight years ago and helped out at St. Peter’s Church in Kernville about once a month.
Friends and family described Byron with the same words over and over: kind, gentle and loving.
Particularly with Gladys, who was in failing health.
“It was beautiful, his devotion to her,” said Bishop Eric Menees with the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. “He cared for her up until their very last seconds.”
Byron was, by all accounts, a bear of a man standing six-foot-four. And one who loved a deep, deep discussion of theological history.
“He was so sweet, you couldn’t help but love him,” said Vivian Churness, wife of Dave Churness, who was a steadfast friend to Byron from their junior high days. “He would come for a weekend and we’d be exhausted from all the talks. But he was wonderful and so polite. He pulled out chairs for ladies and stood when a lady entered the room.”
Dave Churness remembered how, in their younger days, Byron would spend all his money on music and books.
“In high school, he used to like to go to Wallich’s Music City in Lakewood and Smith’s Acres of Books in Long Beach and just buy stacks and stacks of books,” Dave Churness said. “He was very brainy. I learned a lot from him.”
Byron went to UCLA where he earned a bachelor’s in history, Churness said. Then he went to seminary and began pastoring at various churches.
He married and had three daughters, now grown, and later divorced.
Through it all, Churness and Byron remained friends, even becoming godparents to each other’s children.
“He was brilliant. And very kind,” Churness said.
But apparently not much of a cook.
With Gladys’ poor health and Byron not one for the kitchen, the two spent a lot of time either at doctor’s appointments or out to eat, Churness said.
“Yup, they had breakfast at Burger King every morning,” said real estate broker Paul Mooney, who worked with Byron and Gladys over the years.
He said the couple was honest and straight up in their real estate dealings, though they had trouble keeping up with technology.
“They were still writing contracts out by hand,” Mooney said. “So we all helped them with that stuff. They worked hard at the business.
“They were just nice people.”
A memorial service will be held July 23 at St. Peter’s Church in Kernville. The family is still working out the time.