Van McKenzie, Orlando Sports Editor, Dies at 61

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By: E&P Staff

Van F. McKenzie, associate managing editor for sports at the Orlando Sentinel, died Friday morning after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 61.

“We’ve lost a towering editor and a dear friend,” said Sentinel Editor Charlotte H. Hall in a statement. “Van had vision, creativity and a passion for life. He was a fireball of energy and ideas, and behind his sometimes gruff exterior lay a soft and selfless heart. Van’s greatest legacy as an editor was the talent he discovered and nurtured. People wanted to work for him because he brought out their best.”

His newspaper wrote on its Web site, “During his seven years running the sports department, he led the section to unprecedented success as the Associated Press Sports Editors continually cited it as one of the top sports sections in the country.:

The rest of its obituary follows.

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McKenzie’s reach goes far beyond Orlando, and his impact has clearly shaped the sports journalism business. More than 30 people who worked with him later went on to be sports editors in places such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Newark, St. Louis and San Jose. He also assembled and nurtured some of the greatest stables of writers during the last 30 years. Even magazines benefited as he sent 10 of his writers to Sports Illustrated.

A nomadic sports editor by modern standards, McKenzie made stops at the Ocala Star-Banner, the Sentinel, Cocoa Today (now Florida Today), St. Petersburg Times, New York Daily News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The National — the first nationwide sports daily in this country — and back to the Sentinel.

“Van had the best story instinct of any sports editor I’ve ever known,” said Dave Kindred, an author, columnist and past Red Smith Award winner (the highest honor in sports journalism), who worked with McKenzie in Atlanta and at The National.

“Whether it’s columns, features, news, graphics, design — you name it, he knew the good stuff when he saw it,” Kindred said. “Better, he knew how to get his people to do it. First, because he was a great judge of talent and character, he hired the right people. Then he gave them all the support and freedom they needed, and in return they gave him their best work and a promise to do it again tomorrow.”

A journalist by trade and a gambler at heart, McKenzie lived his life with the subtlety of a horse being saddled for the first time. He loved taking risks and fittingly had a fondness for inside straights and slow-running greyhounds. But in the end, it was all about the action and the journey and the thrill of hitting it big.

A lot of his drive was instilled in him during his youth. The son of a well-driller and miner from Ohio, the family would move from city to city in constant search for a better way of life. Eventually, they settled in Ocala, where the promise of a growing economy would bring stability to a poor family with two sons.

“I remember my dad had this stove that kept us warm,” McKenzie would say about his childhood. “Whenever we ran out of money, my dad would take it to the pawn shop so we could buy food. When he would get a job and get some money, he would go to the pawnbroker and buy the stove back. It was a regular thing.”

After graduating high school, McKenzie went to Central Florida Junior College in Ocala (today it’s Central Florida Community College) and later attended the University of Florida. He took odd jobs, even spending a summer as a roofer.

But it was in 1963 that he, along with his older brother Jay, went to work for the Ocala Star-Banner. He was immediately a star and was named sports editor at 17 years old.

Buddy Martin, currently the managing editor at the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald, gave McKenzie his first break in the business in Ocala. He later worked with McKenzie in Cocoa, St. Petersburg and New York.

“To say that I recognized true genius would be a distortion of fact,” Martin said. “I found Van through a classified ad in the [paper], along with his brother Jay and friend Jim Waldron. It was pure luck. Sooner or later Van would break through somewhere.”

It was at the Star-Banner that he caught the eye of 18-year-old Sandy Williams, who worked in the composing room. She bet her co-workers that she could get a date with the new sports editor. She not only won the bet but also had a ring three months later. They married in 1968.

From Ocala, he stopped briefly in Orlando before going to Cocoa Today and leaving there for the St. Petersburg Times. He was executive sports editor at both newspapers.

He had already developed a trademark of producing sections with strong, bold visuals and “out-of-the-box” thinking well before most sports editors even knew there was a box. In the mid-’70s, the St. Petersburg Times sports section was voted best in the country by APSE, which came as a shock to the big boys in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

While the writing was first rate, it was his use of illustrations, caricatures and graphics that caught everyone’s eye. Some say he even invented the charticle — a story in chart form, which has become the rage some three decades later.

His use of eye-catching front pages started a revolution in Florida that soon spread to the rest of the country.

After the Times, Martin invited him to New York to try a grand experiment at the New York Daily News, an afternoon tabloid that was built around the sports section. It only lasted a few months.

But during that brief time, his reputation grew and he was invited to Atlanta as assistant managing editor to rebuild the sports section for a newspaper that proclaimed it covered “Dixie like the dew.”

It wasn’t long before his section was winning almost every award as both a section and in individual writing, having assembled arguably the best staff in the business.

Throughout his career, McKenzie displayed a headstrong, take-no-prisoners approach toward his bosses, a remarkable feat in a business that has increasingly phased out the true Runyonesque personalities.

“When I was in Atlanta, I quit three different times when I didn’t get what I wanted,” McKenzie would say. “One time, they didn’t call me for three days to come back. I was getting kind of worried.”

But, he was always asked back because he did the one thing his bosses appreciated: he produced a sports section that was as journalistically strong as it was entertaining.

Wherever he worked, he engendered a strong sense of loyalty from staffs who he worked extremely hard.

“Van never took credit for anything,” said Rick Jaffe, managing editor for Fox Sports Net, who worked with McKenzie in Atlanta and at The National. “I can’t tell you the number of times I was with him when a superior would come by to praise work the sports section had done, yet despite being the driving force on everything, he would always say one of his employees was responsible.”

In 1988, Bill Kovach, editor of the Journal-Constitution, wanted the best, most innovative political convention coverage ever seen in a newspaper when the Democrats came to his town. He turned to McKenzie.

“It was unprecedented,” said Jaffe, who came to Atlanta to work on the convention project. “Never before or since have I heard of a sports guy and his ‘crew’ to literally be in charge of producing political convention coverage. Kovach had that much faith in him that he knew he was the only one in the building that could pull it off.”

The Atlanta sports section was on top as was McKenzie, but he was always looking for a challenge. Along came a Mexican billionaire who thought that the United States was ready for its first ever national sports daily newspaper. Frank Deford, the accomplished author and Sports Illustrated writer, was hired as editor and he needed someone to run the staff and produce the publication. The paper was appropriately named “The National.”

“He had the job five minutes after I met him,” Deford said. McKenzie became the managing editor. “His depth of knowledge, his enthusiasm, the organizational skills I had heard about–not to mention he came with about 100 good ideas.”

The newspaper folded 15 months after it started beset with distribution problems.

“We were never criticized for our editorial content only our ability to deliver the paper,” Deford said. “Van was nothing but a terrific editor, and I told him then and after we folded that, more than anyone else, he was the man who made that paper the artistic success that it was.”

By 1991, McKenzie had given 27 years to journalism and, armed with a contract that still paid him for a few years, decided to take another gamble. He opened a couple of cinema pubs, one at St. Augustine Beach, where he made his home, and the other in Palatka. He brought the entire family into the business as they showed movies in the front while wife Sandy worked in the kitchen and sons, Van, Jr., and Von, were working at the Palatka location.

It was a great diversion and McKenzie thrilled at the entrepreneurial nature of the business, but his heart was still in newspapers. It took longer than most would have guessed but he put out the word in 1999 that he was ready to rejoin daily newspapering.

Luck was on McKenzie’s side. The perfect opportunity was just down the road in Orlando, which was looking to bolster it sports coverage and was willing to put forth the commitment it took to make it a world-class sports section. Who better to undertake that project?

“Van was already a legend in the business,” said John Haile, the retired Sentinel editor who hired McKenzie. “We had approached him through a third party . . . and when he said he might be interested, there was no way we weren’t going to chase after him. Everybody was telling us he would be No. 1 on any newspaper’s list for the top sports job. He was just that good.

“I think maybe some of the human resource people at first thought we might be a little crazy when they heard we were hiring someone who had been running a movie theater.”

McKenzie made a splash in Orlando before he even started. He sent a memo to the staff outlining his expectations and goals. It was dubbed the “Vanifesto.” In it he talked about making the section great and having it compete against papers two and three times its circulation.

It wasn’t long before the section started its transformation and sports editors across the country were pointing toward Central Florida for all the innovations that were being introduced. Privately, McKenzie called his success in Orlando his greatest achievement.

Upon learning he had cancer late in the fall of 2003, McKenzie continued to work while undergoing initial radiation and chemotherapy. He followed the treatment with two surgeries and more chemotherapy.

“Van faced his illness with courage and grace,” said Sentinel Editor Hall. “He comforted his family and friends and taught us all an invaluable lesson about cherishing those we love.”

But he could never separate himself from the sports section. Even when he was no longer able to come into the office, he called in critiques, ideas and instructions all with the goal of making the section better.

“We always knew we were a good sports section,” said Lynn Hoppes, the Sentinel’s executive sports editor. “But when Van arrived, he showed us how to be a great sports section. He erased the boundary lines and created his own. He wanted every day’s sports section to be better than the previous one. He instilled this value into us and his legacy will live on.”

Survivors include wife Sandy of Lake Mary, sons Van, Jr. of Orlando and Von of St. Augustine; mother Mary of Ocala; brother Jay of Ocala and five grandchildren.

A private family service is being held. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Van F. McKenzie Endowed Scholarship Fund c/o CFCC Foundation, 3001 SW College Road, Ocala, FL 34474. This scholarship will be used exclusively to help a promising sports writer/editor. Gifts are tax deductible and will be eligible for state match on a one for one basis. For further information call 352-873-5808.

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