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Polson High senior receives Winslow Nichols Leadership Award

by Kristi Niemeyer
Editor | December 15, 2022 12:00 AM

“It’s been my goal to be valedictorian since forever – pretty much at least since I knew what the word meant,” says Polson High senior Aspen McKee. With just two quarters left in her high school career and a 4.0 grade point, she’s on track to check that accomplishment off of her to-do list.

The highly motivated student is the recipient of the Winslow Nichols Leadership Award from Logan Health. In nominating McKee, school counselor Betsy Wade calls her “an exceptionally talented student – demonstrating academic excellence and intellectual curiosity.”

“I’m a doer,” says McKee of her many accomplishments.

That propensity for engagement helps explain her decision to take the most rigorous course of study available at Polson High, including five AP classes and two dual-enrollment classes, which have already earned her 15 college credits. She’s taken music all four years, playing saxophone and piano, performing with the Symphonic Band, Jazz Band and Pep Band, and receiving superior ratings at the district and state level. She’s the sole band member to earn a berth at the prestigious All Northwest music conference in February, featuring top high school musicians from six states.

With a little nudge from her grandmother and father, who are both musicians, she started playing piano in kindergarten (“before I could even touch the pedals”), guitar in fifth grade and sax in sixth. Like most kids, she periodically balked at all that practice, “but now I’m glad my parents didn’t let me quit,” she says.

McKee is the daughter of veterinarian Spring McKee and Polson High math teacher James McKee. Her sister, Mesa, is in her junior year of college.

Aspen credits her mom, who runs her own business, VetCare Montana, is a 4-H leader and coordinates children’s programs at church, with instilling drive and focus in her daughter.

“My mom is a very, very busy lady and that’s where I get it from,” says McKee. “She’s never taken well to just sitting and doing nothing.”

4-H has been a big part of Aspen’s life. She’s been president of her club, a 4-H Ambassador, and took top honors in dog training and handling. Her canine pursuits continue with her border collie Bounce. Together, they’ve competed at two North American Dog Agility Council National championships, winning the junior handling division last year and taking second place in the adult “Stakes” competition this fall.

“It’s hard – not a lot of people can even get into that division,” says McKee. The Stakes handler is relegated to a box, where she uses verbal and hand commands to direct her dog through a complicated agility course.

“Your dog has to be very driven and Bounce is,” McKee explains. “She’s fast and she likes it a lot and she pays really good attention.”

In addition to training dogs, McKee is good at wrangling her peers. She was a junior counselor at the Montana Learning Center, helped reinvigorate the National Honor Society chapter, participated in the Montana Aerospace Scholars program, and was a Link Leader, mentoring freshmen as they transitioned to high school.

Her aptitude for leadership “stems from that doer part of me,” she says. “I get things done and I get along well with other people and I can project my voice, which is helpful.”

McKee is also passionate about swimming, although she initially pursued the sport reluctantly – and only because her sister and parents insisted. She was a member of the Lake Monsters swim team and now competes on the high school team, winning fifth place in the 500-meter freestyle at last year’s state meet in Great Falls. She’s also worked as a lifeguard at the Mission Valley Aquatic Center.

“Swimming is very underrated,” she says. “It’s a great way to get exercise and I’ve met so many different people and made so many different friends.”

With half of the school year almost behind her, McKee has spent much of the fall applying for college and scholarships. She’s been accepted at Montana State University and Emory-Riddle Aeronautical University and expects to head for MSU next fall and major in mechanical engineering.

“I’m really interested in stars and space and the physics behind it all,” she says. “My big, big dream is to work with NASA but, like, baby steps …”

She plans to arrive at MSU with guitar and saxophone in hand and is confident she can find a piano to play in the dorm. She’s already looked into joining the Spirit of the West Marching Band “so I’d get my music fix and my saxophone fix.”

Meanwhile, she doesn’t intend to slow down in her quest for the title of valedictorian, nor succumb to senioritis. “I’m just trying to finish strong,” she says.

On the other side of graduation awaits a month-long trip to Ireland with the Irish Life Experience. She calls the adventure “my little ‘congrats Aspen you did it’” reward.

McKee says receiving the Winslow Nichols Leadership Award took her by surprise since she didn’t know her counselor had nominated her. She was in choir class during the last period of the day when Logan Health reps arrived, announced the award, and handed out Krispy Kreme donuts to the entire class.

The award, which honors high-achieving students based on academics, character and citizenship, comes with $250 that recipients can donate to a school club or activity of their choice.

McKee plans to give hers to the music department. “Band has been my thing. I’ve been in it all four years and I just joined choir this year,” she says. “I want to leave behind a little bit for it.”

Students in Lake, Flathead, Lincoln, Glacier, Pondera, Liberty or Toole counties are eligible for the award, and are selected quarterly. For more information, visit www.logan.org/health/about/the-winslow-nichols-leadership-award.

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