Brian McKernan, 44, known to many in the area for his years of substance-abuse work at Whitman-Walker Health, was killed Sept. 6 in Austin, Texas, as he attempted to aid a motorcyclist who had hit another vehicle. According to the Austin American-Statesman, both McKernan and the motorcyclist were killed when another vehicle ran into them along an Austin highway.
”When he was on staff here, he was instrumental in basically elevating the level of care and treatment that addiction-services clients got, particularly those involved with the Scott-Harper Recovery House he managed,” says Joshua Riley, behavioral health manager for WWH’s addiction treatment services. ”He was just terrific in that position.”
McKernan managed the Scott-Harper House, WWH’s temporary housing for clients enrolled in a particular addiction-recovery program, from 1999 to 2005.
Amy B. Smith began working with McKernan at WWH, then Whitman-Walker Clinic, shortly before he began managing the Scott-Harper House. It was her first full-time counseling job.
”I shadowed him and I learned a lot about Brian those first few weeks,” she recalls. ”We were very close after that. I was a better clinician as a result of being so intertwined with clients, modeling what he did.
”Brian was the most consistent person I ever had the pleasure of working with. He did what was important for the people under his care. That trumped everything. He was dedicated to the betterment of the clients’ lives.”
For Matthew Roberts, the news may have been more of a shock than for most. He and McKernan had considered the hypothetical phone call with the tragic news. In those considerations, however, they imagined McKernan getting the bad news from Afghanistan, where Roberts has been working since April for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
”He’d been my partner for several years. He was my dearest friend. I knew him really well,” Roberts said Tuesday from southeastern Pennsylvania, where he attended McKernan’s Sept. 13 funeral with McKernan’s family.
Through a romantic relationship that changed into a strong friendship, Roberts and McKernan remained co-owners of their Adams Morgan home. Returning from Afghanistan to bury his friend, Roberts says he took some small joy in the rooftop garden that McKernan tended, in full bloom.
”That was really a reflection of him,” Roberts said, adding that so was the act of humanitarianism that cost McKernan his life. ”He really did like to help people. That was in his core. For him to run out in the road to try to help this motorcyclist…. Most people wouldn’t do that.”
A ”Celebration of Brian’s Life” has been announced on a memorial Facebook page for Saturday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m., at Whitman-Walker Health, 1701 14th St. NW. In a funeral notice, McKernan’s family suggested that memorial donations be made to support the Scott-Harper House, which may be done by calling 202-797-3543 or online at whitman-walker.org.