Sometime in the late 1970s, the builder Scott McLean decided to have a pumpkin-carving party, a big one. He purchased some 300 pumpkins and invited about everyone he knew to his home in the woods of Chatham County.
That Halloween, Chicken Bridge, a one-lane road over the Haw River, was festooned with glowing jack-o-lanterns – enough to stop traffic.
The annual bridge decoration lasted several years, until too many spectators made it unsafe to keep going. Others picked up where McLean left off, however, and his friends give him credit for the many bridges in these parts decorated by the glow of artfully carved pumpkins come late October.
His son, Jake McLean, characterized his father’s love of gathering friends and family as “social adventures.” Another tradition included an annual “Anything that Floats But Boats Race and Louisiana Boil” on a friend’s Chatham farm pond. McLean was happy to secure building materials for anyone who was game, and a trophy was awarded to the fastest “boat.”
“I think as much as anything else, it was to see what would happen,” Jake McLean said. “To see who would show up and how the party would go.”
Though he no longer organized bridge decorating, McLean hosted pumpkin parties for years to come, more recently carving a “pumpkini” for his wife, Mari McLean. Scott McLean wore pumpkin shorts held up by suspenders.
It was a shock to his loved ones when McLean, 64, was diagnosed with brain cancer in September. He died last month.
Cassie Wasko wrote about the pumpkins on Chicken Bridge in the Chatham Record in 1987: “In a world where most folks think they deserve to profit in some way for everything they do, it is especially nice to see something like the pumpkin display just for fun and for the enjoyment of others.”
The desire to bring joy with no strings attached defined much of McLean’s life. Given his practice of building community wherever he went, friends and family say they’re not quite sure what to do with themselves now that he’s gone.
Builder of marvels
McLean was born in Wisconsin, raised in Kentucky, and moved to Chapel Hill to attend UNC in the late 1960s. The pull of working with his hands, building something from nothing, proved stronger the classroom, and he left to work in construction before he completed a degree.
In 1971 he formed McLean Building Co., and soon joined forces with partners Lane and Cheryl Davis. They specialized in larger homes and projects, including John Edwards’ 16,000-square-foot Chapel Hill manse and more recently, Manifold Recording, considered one of the finest music studios in the world. Located in Pittsboro, it was called an “architectural marvel” by Chapel Hill Magazine in 2014.
For the Davises, his death is “almost like losing a spouse.” They brought their dogs to work, had weekly family dinners where wine and some form of pasta with clams was often included, and never made business decisions without reaching consensus.
“More is more, that was always our motto,” Cheryl Davis said. “He was very inclusive and happy.”
“He helped a lot of people out very quietly, without making a big deal of it,” said longtime friend Mark Elliott. Paying tuition bills, helping a friend’s struggling business – he was quick to step in when needed.
A late-life family
Friends say he was never happier than the last seven years – after meeting his wife, Mari. McLean had been widowed in 2005 when his second wife, Nancy Pruden, died of lung cancer. He had nursed her through the depths of her illness. Meeting Mari, a veterinarian, reinvigorated him; their daughter Katherine was born in 2011. Son Luke was born in January of this year. Most Saturday mornings he proudly “wore” his children to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. His favorite place to be was sitting in a chair, reading them books.
After his diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme, his health deteriorated rapidly. Hospice care was introduced in early October, and friends and family readily volunteered to sit with him around the clock.
“We really had to turn people away, people wanting to be there to help,” Cheryl Davis said.
As he drew his last breaths, Mari McLean, 34, read her “promises” to her husband, among them, “to raise our daughter to be a strong, confident, and joyful McLean . . . to raise our son to aspire to be like the best man I have ever known, his father . . . and to never feel alone when raising our children, but instead, know that you will be by my side, especially when I feel that I am struggling.”
Staff writer David Raynor contributed to this article.