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Paul McKenzie-remembering a gifted athlete and individual

By David Rothstein

I first met Paul McKenzie '90 on the rubber ground of the Johnson Athletic Center's second floor, where so much of MIT's indoor track and field success is recorded under cold lights and iron beams. It was November last, the beginning of the indoor track season. At that time I was giving track a try: a reliving of ill-remembered high school glories gained on western Massachusetts gravel tracks.

This McKenzie, a hurdler and sprinter, I knew to be part of the MIT track mystique, the upper echelon of runners whose works had to that point left MIT with a string of 50 dual and triangular meets without a loss, and numerous team championships and individual awards.

I first really noticed Paul a month later, as he took a relay baton from Dan Rubenstein '92 in a 1600-meter relay race against the College of the Holy Cross. This slight, quiet man, hair cropped close, ran like I hadn't seen anyone run before: an unorthodox, almost jerky motion, arms bowed out wide. But Paul ran so fast. I wrote in the next issue of The Tech that the ". . . junior also anchored MIT's winning 1600-meter relay team with a blistering 50.2-second leg for a come-from-behind win."

I would write of Paul's exploits often in these pages, but that memory has stayed with me always. Running well from behind was Paul's trademark, and he brought understated intensity to every competition he entered.

Paul McKenzie died on June 17 in a car wreck in Mexico. He was in San Diego on shore leave from active duty in the Navy ROTC program, and took a ride to see the Mexican country with a friend. He did not return alive.

I did not know Paul as well as many others, on the team or otherwise. We were no better than casual acquaintances, but it was a privilege to know him; how sad it is that we can see these things at times in retrospect alone.

How can one describe the shock, the emptiness of feeling, in learning of the death of a peer, a 20-year-old man whose senior year and life beyond MIT was filled with promise? For those who lived with Paul at Next House; for those who knew him from ROTC; for those who knew him only slightly; or for those who ran with him at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III track championships only weeks before his death, there is no easy understanding.

No MIT team that Paul had run on ever experienced defeat in regular season competition. He helped -- in the hurdle events, in the short and long relays, in the sprints -- MIT to record finishes last year at championship meets. At the Division III championships in May, Paul earned All-American honors for his eighth-place finish in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, and as a member of MIT's 1600-meter relay team. Appropriately, perhaps, he set an MIT record in the hurdles race.

We shall never again hear the scuffle of Paul's nylon warm-up suit as he jogs around the track. Nor see that quiet nod and quick smile he'd flash at someone he knew. Nor read his by-line in The Tech, nor delight in his running.

But our memories of Paul will long grace the runways and halls of MIT.