Second Lieutenant Joseph McGee was the first person in the first group of paratroopers to jump from the C141 aircraft.
After three weeks of airborne training, it was McGee’s first time leaping out of a plane. He stood approximately 2,000 feet above the drop zone and waited eagerly for the signal.
Finally, the green light flickered on. The jump master yelled, “go!”
Instinct kicked in and McGee did as he was taught: he leaped from the plane, fell 2,000 feet and landed hard, but safely, on the drop zone.
Today, McGee no longer jumps out of aircraft or lives out of rucksacks in the mountains of South Korea; life in the military is behind him. He is now an author of children’s books and a writing arts professor at Rowan University.
McGee, 44, has long black hair, a beard, tattoos across both forearms, and goes to work in jeans and a t-shirt. The author and father of three boys enjoys a wide variety of interests, but his one true passion will always be writing.
“I love to write,” McGee said. “I can’t not do it. That would be like saying, ‘we shouldn’t be breathing right now.’ It’s my life.”
As a child, McGee’s family would frequently move from state to state. They lived in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, Illinois and upstate New York. McGee estimates that his family moved approximately 14 times prior to him graduating high school.
Although it was difficult at the time, McGee looks at his somewhat nomadic childhood as a blessing.
“I think it helped me be a more versatile person,” he said. “It allowed me to meet a lot of new people and adapt to different environments. Those are both important lessons to have in life.”
McGee started reading Stephen King novels when he was 12 years old, and he realized that he wanted to be a published writer by the fourth grade. He would write his own stories and share them with his classmates. They gathered around a young McGee at recess as he read tales of mythology, science fiction, monsters and zombies from his spiral-bound notebook.
One story that particularly resonated with his classmates was a post-apocalyptic tale about a World War II pilot that was shot down on a zombie-infested island.
“I was writing stories that people were actually interested in hearing. At that age, it was very important to have that support,” McGee said.
After graduating high school, McGee planned on enlisting in the military, but he was only 17 at the time. His father, an Air Force veteran, advised him to try out college for a year and apply for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program; if McGee thought college wasn’t for him, he would have the option to enlist in the military once he turned 18.
McGee enrolled at Rowan and quickly excelled in his first semester, ultimately earning a scholarship from the army. He studied psychology as an undergrad before entering the military as part of the ROTC program.
During his time in the military, McGee was stationed in the Yongsan Garrison of South Korea for a year and a half. He served as a second lieutenant officer, in charge of 40 soldiers and millions of dollars’ worth of equipment.
McGee came from a long line of proud military veterans dating all the way back to his great grandfather, who was one of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. However, unlike some of his ancestors, McGee eventually came to the realization that he didn’t want to make a career out of the military.
“It wasn’t for me,” he said. “I’ve always strived to be an individual. I want to do things my way.”
In 2010, McGee returned to Rowan to pursue a master’s degree in writing.
One of McGee’s greatest accomplishments as a student was winning the Antoinette Libro Medallion Award for excellence in writing at a master’s level. The award is given to students who display outstanding academic performance and professionalism.
“He was just a tremendously energetic and committed student,” said Dr. Jennifer Courtney, the current interim chair of the writing department. “He was very generous with giving feedback to his classmates on their own work. We were really, really pleased to eventually bring him on the board as an instructor.”
Courtney, who presented the Medallion Award to McGee, believed that he was the perfect personification of the honor.
“I remember the night well,” Courtney said. “To be able to give him the award and tell the audience about his accomplishments was a thrill.”
As a graduate student, McGee discovered his voice for writing children’s books, a niche he never imagined for himself.
“It’s like being Peter Pan,” McGee said. “You still have to be a little bit of a kid and still genuinely buy into the magic.”
Writing children’s stories has provided McGee with a unique outlet that allows him to incorporate his love of horror. In one of his most popular works, “Peanut Butter & Brains,” McGee was able to blend his love of zombies with the charm of a children’s book. The story is about a zombie named Reginald that doesn’t want to eat brains like the rest of the zombies.
“It’s like being Peter Pan,” – McGee, on being a children’s author
“It’s really rewarding,” McGee said. “I feel like I have come full circle. To be writing these things that I would have been interested in as a kid really makes me feel like I have completed a journey.”
McGee was inspired to write “Peanut Butter & Brains” after his son Logan was picked on in school for wearing shoes that weren’t the “cool shoes to wear,” but Logan wore the shoes anyway.
“Everyone should be able to feel comfortable and be themselves. That was really my inspiration for the story,” McGee said.
Just like his son, McGee has always been a Reginald.
“I’ve never felt like I had to conform or try to fit in. I’ve always been comfortable with myself,” he said.
Aside from being a respected and well-liked professor, McGee is someone students go to for advice and help.
McGee is currently working on another children’s book titled “Peanut Butter & Aliens,” set to be released in fall of this year. He is also writing a Celtic mythology novel and a “Goosebumps-style chapter book.”
In his future, McGee hopes to produce a New York Times Best Seller and eventually publish a novel for every age group. He also wants to hike the 500-mile long Camino de Santiago in Spain and visit Bran Castle, known as Castle Dracula, in Transylvania.
“Life is so short that it’s to be lived,” said McGee. “So I try to go out and do as many things as I can.”
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