Gordon McKenzie, Olympic runner, dies at 86
Gordon McKenzie, a sports enthusiast, two-time Olympic competitor and former Great Neck resident, died July 19 from complications arising from an inflamed gallbladder, his family said. He was 86.
"He was dedicated to athletics," said McKenzie's daughter, Tina Bickerstaff of Gambrills, Md. "He was an all-around athlete but it was track that was his real passion and what he really excelled in."
McKenzie was born on June 26, 1927, in Fort Totten, Queens, and grew up at Fort Wood on what is now Liberty Island, according to his family. He graduated from the Manhattan High School of Aviation Trades in 1945 and was drafted into the Army that same year. While stationed in Panama, he won a lightweight boxing championship, his family said.
He was discharged in 1947 and graduated from New York University with an engineering degree in 1952. After college, McKenzie started work as a civil engineer for New York City, a position he held for the next 37 years, his daughter said.
In 1956, McKenzie competed in the summer Olympic Games, running the 10,000-meter race in Melbourne, Australia. He didn't place, but broke the American record for the event, his family said. He finished second in the 1960 Boston Marathon and was the first American to cross the finish line, qualifying him for the summer Olympic Games in Rome where he ran in the marathon.
While attending an international track meet in England in 1953, McKenzie met Chris Slemon, who was to become his wife. McKenzie recorded her time when she competed in the 880-yard race and informed her that the announcer got her time wrong, his family said. They were married in 1955.
"They shared this almost obsessive passion for athletics and being healthy and being part of this movement, of this spirit of athleticism," Bickerstaff said.
The couple moved in 1961 to Great Neck, where they both coached local track teams, spoke at high schools, volunteered with the Special Olympics and mentored young athletes, Bickerstaff said. McKenzie also acted as a Nassau County track and field official.
A lifelong member of the New York Pioneer Club, McKenzie ran races and marathons throughout his life. He was inducted into the Road Runners Club of America Hall of Fame in 1985 and the New York University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2003, his family said. He continued to lead an active lifestyle right up to his death and was zip-lining, camping and hiking on a trip to Kentucky two weeks ago, family members said.
"He didn't slow down," said McKenzie's son, Adam McKenzie of Huntington. "He was that strong athletic person his entire life."
In addition to his wife, daughter Tina and son Adam, McKenzie is survived by another son, Stuart McKenzie of upstate Accord; a brother, Thomas McKenzie of San Jose, Costa Rica; and seven grandchildren.
Viewing is from 3 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday at Fairchild Sons Inc. Funeral Chapel in Manhasset. A funeral is being held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the same location. In lieu of flowers the family asks that donations be made to the Prospect Park Youth Running Club at 317 Greenwood Ave. in Brooklyn.