McKenley Leaves Rich Legacy


Jamaican track and field legend, Herbert Henry McKenley passed away on November 26 at the age of 85, leaving behind a rich legacy in the annals of the sport.
What he left behind in terms of accomplishments on the field reads like a bestselling novel, as at the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games in London and Helsinki, respectively, he won three individual silver medals, two of which were in spectacular photo finish fashion.
In 1952 he produced one of the greatest relay legs of all time as Jamaica took the 400 metres relay gold in then world record time.
In terms of history, to this day he remains the only person to have reached the finals for the Olympic 100m, 200m and 400m. He is the only athlete to have won medals in all three sprints in the same major games, which was the 1951 Pan American Games; and the only man in the 20th Century to win Olympic medals in the 100m and 400m.
He was also the first man to run the quarter mile under 46 seconds, then under 45 seconds. At various times he was world record holder at 300 yards, 440 yards, 300m and 400m.
But to solely focus on his athletic achievements does not adequately sum up the life of this enduring iconic sports figure and what he meant to those who were blessed to have known him.
JIS News caught up with several of his close friends and team mate to share stories on the man known as ‘Hustling Herb’ on the American collegiate scene back in his heyday as a star athlete in the 1940s.
For close family friend, Howard Aris, President of the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association, whose friendship with McKenley spans decades, the legend has left an indelible mark on his life as well as others. Herb, he says, was a magnanimous man. “He would not enter a room and close the door, he would leave it open for others to follow,” he sums up the life of the icon, who opened doors for local track administrators on the international scene. Mr. Aris also shares that McKenley had a way of getting things done even when it seemed impossible and this is a trait that everyone who knew him testifies to, even Kingston College old boys who, back in the sixties, when they were trying to send a team to the Penn Relays and Herb, a Calabar old boy no less, came to their rescue.
There were also other instances. He recalls a specific incident in 1971 when the Pan American Games were being held in Cali, Columbia and Donald Quarrie, then ascending international track star, competed and won the 200m equalling the world record at the time.
“Herb was a member of the coaching staff like myself and he said, ‘Look why don’t we all take our families down to Cali and let them see the Pan Am Games?’ but I said, ‘Herb how are we going to afford that and where are they going to stay and how will they get into the stadium?”
“He said leave that to me man and don’t worry about it. To cut a long story short, Herb found ways and means. We got a cottage. My wife went, Beverley (Herb’s wife), Lennox Miller, who had just gotten married came with his wife and the three ladies rented a house that Herb arranged. It ended up that we did not have to pay for it because the people had admired Herb so much, he did not have to pay for the accommodations anyhow,” he remembers.
“But the real thing that I can recall with some amusement is when they were about to leave one day to go to the stadium and just before the event started, Tony Bridge, who was then President of the Jamaica Olympic Association said, ‘Herb I did not know that your wife was here and Howard’s wife was here and Millers’ wife was here.’ Herb, how are they going to get into the stadium?”
He responded, ‘Tony Bridge I think that once you found out, you would ensure that they would get in’ and Tony Bridge did it,” he laughs. “Herb was that type of person,” he adds, wistfully.
Olympic 200m Gold Medalist in Montreal in 1976, Donald Quarrie has had a special bond with McKenley since he first met him 1967 while training at the stadium. From then, he says, he was fascinated with the legend. In fact, at one point as a youngster when he would visit Herb at his then insurance workplace in New Kingston, people would think he worked for him.
“He motivated me when I was running. I told friends the other day even at the Olympics walking into the checking area you would have thought that Herb was the one who was going to compete and not me, because he was more upbeat and very serious walking into the checking area,” he reminisces.
“It is comforting to know that I had a fantastic relationship being around Herb McKenley and being a part of his life and family and also being a good friend of him,” he says proudly.
In the latter part of McKenley’s life, Mr. Quarrie, who is based overseas, says that when visiting Jamaica he would go to Herb’s home on University Crescent and sit with him. Their favourite past time, he says, was just eating a patty and just talking. “Herb loved patty just as much as I did,” he chuckles.
However, one of his enduring memories of the sports giant is his bright yellow Jamaican jacket, which he wore constantly on trips to international track events. Indeed, many athletes considered it a bit “too bright.”
“He would wear that thing everywhere. He was proud of wearing that jacket, saying ‘I do not care how bright it is’. But, when he stepped into a building or an airport everybody saw him and it somehow commanded attention. So if we had problems in any area, I think that yellow jacket plus Herb McKenley was able to solve it a lot easier than had he just walk in there any old way,” he said.
Dr. Herb Elliot, a member of the International Amateur Athletics Federation’s Medical and Anti-doping Commission, among several other responsibilities, chokes up when talking about the legend, who coached him when he was a schoolboy at Kingston College and also his sister, when she was attending Westwood High School for Girls. “I have had the privilege of seeing what the rest of the world thought of Herb McKenley,” he says.
For him, Mr. McKenley was more than a great athlete, coach and administrator. He was the superb ambassador of Jamaica, although for many years he did not possess a diplomatic passport.
“I can remember us going in those days when persons could not leave Jamaica with more than US$50 and we went on a pre-Olympic tour and Herb was able to wrangle for every athlete more than US$2,000 on the pre-Olympic tour,” he remembers.
He says for years he was able to get major German sports apparel manufacturer, Adidas to supply Jamaican athletes with gears, as according to him, McKenley was the first athlete in the world to wear an Adidas shoes when asked by the company long before it reached the heights of its present day popularity.
“A lot of people rejected the shoe but Herb ran in the shoes and broke the world record that day. So basically for Adidas, he was their first record holder and they have never forgotten it,” he says.
Mr. McKenley’s magnanimity comes up again, as Dr. Elliot says he mentored a lot of Jamaicans, not only those who went to his beloved alma mater, Calabar, but anywhere. If Herb saw that you had talent, Dr. Elliot states, he would seek you out and encourage you. He was also known to fight, albeit not physically, but maybe with a few tears, for students to get a track and field scholarship.
“I remember that there were two athletes who were supposed to go on scholarship but there was a problem with them getting US visas and Herb went to the then US Consul General and reasoned with him and the Consul General said to him what surety he would put up. I do not think Herb’s wife knew this, but he took his house title and went there and gave it to the Consul General, who said, if Herb could do that, then he would give the students their visas and both of them went abroad and got their degrees,” he recounts.
He also says what many people do not know is that there were “hundreds of boys” that were “put up” at the McKenleys home. “They were fed and looked after. If you were not close to him or if you visited his house you would not know,” he says.
It is for all these reasons, Dr. Elliot says, that Mr. McKenley is in the Jamaican Track and Field Hall of Fame; Central American and Caribbean Hall of Fame; on the Wall of Fame at the Penn Relays, where his name is among one of a few inscribed there, and the University of Illinois Hall of Fame.
“I do not know how to put this, but the Black American athletes have a Hall of Fame in which he was inducted,” he notes.
Calabar High School old boy, Major Desmon Brown, who McKenley coached for three years in the sprints and who also became a close family friend and currently sits on the organizing committee for the Official Funeral along with Dr. Elliot, recalls his schools days with the legend fondly, as he says Herb was able to bring the best out of everybody.
“He was a great motivator. If you saw him before Champs, especially if Calabar was not doing so well, when Herb came and gave his speech and usually end it with a little cry.eyewater and all and it made you do wonders,” he laughs.
In terms of legacy, he says that Mr. McKenley opened the doors for many Jamaicans seeking to pursue the sport on athletic scholarships abroad. In fact, he has dubbed him the father of the athletic scholarship programme as it was Herb who made many an athlete dream come true with his tenacity, contacts and of course, persuasive personality. He also says that Mr. McKenley must be remembered as the true Jamaican patriot.
“A lot of people do not realize that Herb gave up a lot to stay in Jamaica. I know for a fact that many colleges offered jobs to Herb when he was coaching at Calabar. Many colleges and universities in the States wanted Herb to become their coach and he chose to stay in Jamaica and they were offering him big, big bucks, so I know he gave up financially a lot to stay in Jamaica and coach,” he discloses.
Team mate at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Dr. Cynthia Thompson, who was the first Jamaican woman to ever qualify for the 100m finals at the Games, recalls not only his superb performances but also how his passion and liveliness infused the team that year. She was among five women who were a part of that historic Jamaican team.
“I can still remember him now always jovial and very extrovert. I remember when we were to run the 200 metres he was almost late for it, you know. He came and was peeling off his clothes, putting on his shoes and getting down on the line and still making it,” she recalls, while laughing.
She says he always gave of his best and that it was dedication to the sport and assistance to others, was what defined his life.
In summing up his life, all say that knowing this larger than life character called Herb was definitely one of the best experiences of their lives. Although widely perceived as a modest guy, who cared a lot for sports and athletes, he was much more.he was and still is one of Jamaica’s national treasures.

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