Herb McKenley - living legend

An afternoon with Olympic legend Herb McKenley

BY DANIA BOGLE Observer staff reporter bogled@jamaicaobserver.com
Sunday, October 28, 2007

THERE may not be enough room here to list the accomplishments of track & field legend Herbert Henry McKenley. There is no more room on the walls, or space on the desk of his study to display the trophies, citations, and medals he has won in his 85 years.

An afternoon with Olympic legend Herb McKenley. (Photo: Bryan Cummings)

As the Sunday Observer sat with the fabulous ‘Herb’ in the living room of his University Crescent home, he handed us the jacket cover of a documentary on his life produced by the CPTC.

Order of Jamaica; Commander of Distinction; Doctor of Laws (with honours); world-class athlete; world-class coach; the first man in recorded history to run the 400 metres in under 46 seconds in a flat race and under 45 seconds on a relay leg.

The only man to have won medals in all three sprints in the same major games; only man in the 20th Century to have Olympic medals in the 100m and 400m, it said.

That feature was produced in 2002, before Jamaica’s most notable athlete was conferred with the country’s third highest honour - the Order of Merit - for distinguished service in athletics locally and internationally and before Roosevelt Avenue was renamed Herb McKenley Drive in his honour.

Along with photos of his four children - Laura, Herbie, Michael, and Kirsten - and several of his grandchildren, dotting the study were a framed shirt in yellow bearing the signatures of numerous Jamaican athletes including World Junior 200m record-holder Usain Bolt, World Championships silver medallist Maurice Smith, Novelene Williams, and Chris Pinnock.

There was also a photograph of him the day Herb McKenley Drive was so-named; an award from the Ford Motor Company; a citation from the city of New York and the plaque marking his April 1994 induction into the Penn Relays Hall of Fame.

On his desk sat a plaque, which upon closer examination turned out to be a Carreras Sports Foundation Special Award won by former World Junior champion Roy Bailey as part of the 4x100m boys relay team which won gold at the 1998 World Juniors in Annecy, France.

“He won it but he never collected it,” said McKenley, who coached the former Calabar High School athlete.

After suffering several strokes, the last in 2005, these days the 85-year-old McKenley spends much of his time at home where he is surrounded by family and friends, including his wife of 40 years, Beverley, sister-in-law Shirley, nursing aide Jenoline McKenzie and driver Euken Campbell.

Nowadays, he watches a lot of television.
“I watch almost anything… mostly CNN,” he told us. He also reads the newspapers which are delivered to his house daily.

“This morning (Tuesday) I had to go out and buy the Observer,” Campbell said.

He still goes out from time to time, though not very often.

The Calabar old boy, who coached his alma mater between 1974 and 2001, watched the school win its first ISSA Boys’ Championships title in 10 years from the VIP box at the National Stadium last March.

Fitting, it was. The last time Calabar took home the title was in 1997 while McKenley was coach, and Leroy Keane, whom he coached, was also honoured at this year’s Championships.

He was also inside the VIP box a few months later at the National Championships with another Olympic hero, the Cuban Alberto Juantorena.

McKenley also made the trip down to Mona High School on September 3 to exercise his franchise and cast his vote in the general elections.

Though not actively involved in the sport anymore - he uses a walking aide to move around - McKenley’s love for track & field has never waned.

He said he was up early every morning in late August and early September watching as Jamaican athletes captured a record 10 medals at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka, Japan.

Before 2004 when health problems meant he couldn’t go to Athens, Greece, McKenley had attended every Olympic Games since London Games in 1948 where he won his first medal.

There, he collected a silver in the 400m after clocking 46.4 seconds. Four years later in Helsinki, Finland, he added two silver medals in the 100m and 400m, and a gold in the 4x400m relay.

Dr Leslie Laing, who along with George Rhoden and Dr Arthur Wint were with McKenley on that historic world record-breaking (3:03.9) team, comes to visit him whenever he is in the island, we were told.

In fact, several athletes and others in the sporting fraternity whose lives McKenley touched visit or call from time to time, according to Shirley.

Olympian Vilma Charlton, she added, comes by often, as does 1976 Montreal Olympics 200m gold medallist Donald Quarrie.

Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association (JAAA) president Howard Aris also calls regularly, while general manager of Independence Park Ltd (IPL), Major Desmon Brown, also a Calabar old boy, comes by most Sundays after attending church at Mona Baptist.

Former JAAA boss Teddy McCook, who took over the reigns of the association immediately following McKenley’s presidency in 1984, also pays his respects.

Campbell told us that because climbing the stairs at the barber shop has become too difficult, the barber comes by every two weeks or so to give the legend a trim and shave.

McKenley pointed out a few paintings in his likeness done by artists over the years hanging on the walls of the living room and in the study, showing us one he liked in particular.

And where we sat, we faced the glass door leading to the patio and the garden, and where, Campbell told us, he likes to sit most mornings after he gets up.

Thanks for posting this. That group of Jamaicans, and McKenley in particular, were giants in the sport.

I shared accommodation with DQ for a few seasons in the 1980s. Great guy. Couldn’t believe he could live at McDonalds and run so well:p … McKenley I met at 84 OGs, remember him meeting Bertland Cameron in the warmup area after the 400 semi (I think) and saying “there’s a world record in those legs” - trying to pump him up even though he had just torn a hammy.

As for posting : I’ll post anything I find that I think might interest someone on the board, so long as it’s not a topic off-limits (ie, dopage).