John James McKenzie obituary photo
In Memory of

John James McKenzie

July 17, 1929 - June 8, 2017


John James McKenzie took his final bow on Thursday, June 8, 2017. He completed 87 voyages around the sun...and most of his 88th.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, June 15, 2017 at 2:00 p.m. at Guilford Park Presbyterian Church; with Rev. Jo Owens officiating. A reception will be held at the church following the service.

John was born on July 17, 1929 in Queens, New York, to Scottish immigrant parents Edward McKenzie (a veteran of The Great War, he "wore the kilt" serving in The Black Watch...

John James McKenzie took his final bow on Thursday, June 8, 2017. He completed 87 voyages around the sun...and most of his 88th.

A memorial service will be held on Thursday, June 15, 2017 at 2:00 p.m. at Guilford Park Presbyterian Church; with Rev. Jo Owens officiating. A reception will be held at the church following the service.

John was born on July 17, 1929 in Queens, New York, to Scottish immigrant parents Edward McKenzie (a veteran of The Great War, he "wore the kilt" serving in The Black Watch Regiment of the Royal Highlanders, and always stood taller when he heard the bagpipes) and Margaret Kennedy McKenzie (a great storyteller and proud mother who scrimped and saved to send her son to dance classes). John was a trailblazer - he was the first in his family to be born in the United States. He was raised on the American dream. He never forgot where he came from, and he never forgot that we are a nation of immigrants - where everyone deserves a seat at the table.

The colors of his life were bountiful and bold. As a boy, he was called "Wee Johnny" and he was a bit of an "artful dodger." Although he was an altar boy with loving and attentive parents, he still found time for extracurricular activities such as playing hooky for one entire semester of kindergarten, sneaking into movie theatres and tap-dancing in bars for coins.

John turned things around for himself in his teens by developing a keen sense of academic adventure. While working at the Great Neck Public Library for 35 cents an hour, he read mysteries and the classics voraciously, and eventually broadened his readings to strengthen his understanding of religion, geography and anthropology. Driven by curiosity and a strong hunger for knowledge, he began to form an impressive, analytical mind. While reading a catalog for Davis & Elkins College (D&E) that he was shelving, he was inspired to enroll in the liberal arts school nestled in the hills of West Virginia.

Coming from a family tradition of coal mining and iron working, he trail-blazed again - as the first in his family to go to college. He arrived at D&E with 20 cents in his pocket, and paid his way through school by taking semesters off to work as a Merchant Marine Officer on Grace Line ships. He taught himself Spanish and, as a dashing young purser, navigated easily amongst captains, dockworkers, passengers, crew members, and local citizens at ports of call up and down the coasts of South America.

He explored even more of the Western Hemisphere while serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army during the Korean conflict, stationed in Goose Bay, Labrador.

Returning to D&E as a veteran and a senior, he discovered Patricia "Tish" Davis, one of the finest exports the town of Salem, West Virginia has ever produced. Her smile was dazzling, her heart was true and she quickly became his northern star. Dionysus brought them closer when they were cast in the college's production of Pygmalion -- she as Eliza and he as her father, Alfred Doolittle. The play was a smash hit but, more importantly, John and Tish created dramatic sparks offstage too. They would share the stage harmoniously for the next 63 years without upstaging each other even once.

He graduated from Davis & Elkins with a flair for language thanks to his English degree. John and Tish married on August 11, 1957, in Salem. Through thick and thin, John's love for and devotion to Tish was complete. They loved and laughed together, always delighting in each other's company. Their relationship served as an inspiration to many, especially their four children.

John's law degree from West Virginia University allowed him to defy stereotypes because he was a lawyer with a heart of gold. He then earned his Masters in International Law from NYU's School of Law. He also taught at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. John and Tish soon moved their young family to Cass Hill, a hillside perch in the Helderberg Mountains overlooking Clarksville, New York. From there, they could see five mountain ranges in three different states, and they marveled daily at the epic views of the horizon. They would open up their home over the coming decades to a menagerie of Scotties, Westies, tabbies, rabbits, gerbils, parakeets and doves.

John jumped into his new community with both feet. He was a professor at Albany Law School for years and then joined NY State government to work with Nelson A. Rockefeller. He stayed with NY State for over 30 years in many capacities including years at the Office of General Services, the State Law Revision Commission, State Lottery, and Cable Commission. In Clarksville, he helped couples adopting children without taking a fee and he was known to swap legal advice for rhubarb pie.

He served as president of the Bethlehem Central School Board and on the Board of Assessment for the Town of New Scotland. He was an Elder in the Clarksville Community Church and was particularly impressive as the voice of God in church plays. John taught Sunday School and spent many years as the Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 89 -- providing instruction for all on countless merit badges such as Citizenship in the Community, the Nation and the World -- and forging a McKenzie family Pinewood Derby Champions' dynasty that will never be equaled.

Undoubtedly, John's finest role was that of family man. He and Tish called each other "Sil" (short for Silly) and raised their kids on Sherlock Holmes, National Geographic and the Encyclopedia Britannica. John truly understood the awesome power of a bad joke and he is responsible for his family's high tolerance for corn. He taught his family to revel in the absurd humor of the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and Second City TV.

He taught them to love books, maps, globes and long Sunday drives in the country. He delighted in wedging his family members into small Saabs and Subarus for road trips to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, around Scotland and, especially, to West Virginia.

Each of these gifts was priceless, but the most valuable one he gave his children was a solid understanding that people are more alike than they are different. He believed in equality for people of all races, ethnicities, genders, abilities and religions. He welcomed civil rights leaders into his home and was an advocate for human rights and good will. He was friendly and respectful to all without exception. He and Tish raised artists, educators, public health advocates and community philanthropists who believe in making the world a better place for all, not just for some.

When grandkids and great grandkids arrived, he transitioned into "Granddaddy Knucklehead," magically removed his thumb countless times, led classes in improvised hula, hosted the Living Room Olympics and got down on the floor to play checkers, knights and Hot Wheels even beyond the age when it was certain that he could get back up again.

John truly loved the state and the people of West Virginia. He was one of the few people on earth who really understood (through years of painstaking historical research and constitutional analysis) the unusual and ultimately unconstitutional manner in which the state was created.

In 2009, John and Tish moved to Greensboro, NC to take up residence in the house right next door to their daughter Tara. They quickly became proud members of Guilford Park Presbyterian Church and he thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of the monthly breakfasts with his fellow "Geezers."

In their new hometown, John and Tish made new friends, welcomed family gatherings, watched every single black and white movie ever made, munched BLTs at Oak Crest Family Restaurant and raced electric shopping carts through the aisles of the Lawndale Harris Teeter in matching red hats. He kept learning Spanish into his 80's.

Old age is certainly not for wimps...but John had, at his side, the dream team of Tish, his kids and the angels from 1st Choice Home Care -- especially Agnes, Diane, and Rebekah. He stayed true to his character throughout all challenges. John met his final years and his final moments with a joke, a wink and a smile.

John James McKenzie was an uncommon man dedicated to the common good. If you knew him, you were happier, stronger and better for it. If you didn't know him, you can still find his humor, his sparkle, his "panache" etched in the faces and on the hearts of his family and friends.

John was preceded in death by his parents, and his brothers William and Edward. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Patricia "Tish" Ann Davis McKenzie; children, Tara McKenzie Sandercock (Steve) of Greensboro, Shawn McKenzie (Shawn Dorman) of Stevenson, MD, Mark Skye McKenzie (Diane Ventura) of Los Angeles, CA and Scot McKenzie (Ouida Maedel) of Washington, DC; grandchildren, Jeremy Sandercock, Gabe McKenzie, Hannah McKenzie, Bridget Murray (Robert), Kyle Tracy (Shawn - yes another one!), Nicole Tracy-Ventura (Paul Harsch); and great grandchildren, Caitlin, Logan, Jack, Erica, Max and Evie; sisters-in-law Laura Auvil (Ken) and Louise Cadwallader along with beloved nieces and nephews.

Memorials may be made in honor of John McKenzie to the Davis & Elkins College Theatre Program, The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro's Community Grants Program, the Greensboro Urban Ministry Pathways Shelter or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Online condolences may be made at Hanes Lineberry North Elm Chapel is serving the McKenzie family.