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York City friends celebrate life of 'kooky' neighbor

Jason Addy, and Christopher Dornblaser
York Dispatch
  • Jerry McKenzie, 84, was a longtime York City resident, known as the "loveable grumpy old man," by friends.
  • McKenzie died Feb. 20 after being involved in a car crash on the way home from his daughter's residence.
  • On Saturday, friends held a memorial at the York City Pretzel Co. to remember him.

Longtime York City resident Jerry McKenzie was a hidden gem.

Those who knew him remember him as the “lovable, grumpy old man” who was always there when they needed him.

From left, Tina Kilgore, of Dover, Delaware and Nicky Zittel, of Hanover, look through an album full of old pictures of local character Jerry McKenzie, at a memorial Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, at the York City Pretzel Company. Amanda J. Cain photo

But getting to know the real Jerry McKenzie wasn’t easy.

“He was kind of hard to get to know. You had to break through a shell with him,” Alexandria Keener said. “Once you broke through, there was no going back. He was your best friend. He would do anything for you.”

Keener owns My Girlfriend’s Wardrobe, which is located in the Rosenmiller building where McKenzie lived for decades.

When moving into the building about three years ago, Keener said the property manager introduced her to McKenzie as the building’s caretaker.

“'Anything we needed, Jerry would be able to help,'” Keener recalled from the introduction.

McKenzie and Keener’s relationship blossomed in the years that followed, thanks to the countless hours they shared together while McKenzie changed light bulbs, installed trim work or did any of the countless other projects she sometimes helped with.

He also was a regular at the York City Pretzel Co., often stopping in to have owner Philip Given make his favorite frozen pizzas.

Friends and family gather at the York City Pretzel Co. to remember local character Jerry McKenzie, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. Amanda J. Cain photo

McKenzie was an “institution” at the Rosenmiller building on West Market Street, said Given, who will always remember McKenzie tinkering with his beloved 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle.

McKenzie, 84, died on Feb. 20 at Abington Hospital after being involved in a vehicle crash on his way home from his daughter's home in Dover, Delaware.

Keener and Given organized a memorial Saturday at the York City Pretzel Co. to celebrate the life of McKenzie with pizza and drinks, and nearly 40 people showed up to share countless stories of McKenzie.

Jerry McKenzie's Obituary on York Daily Record & York Dispatch

Memorial: Many spoke about how kind McKenzie was, saying how he would go out of his way to help people.

Tammy McKenzie, of York Township, hugs her uncle Harold Backey, of Harrisburg, North Carolina, after reading  a eulogy for her father and local character Jerry McKenzie, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, at the York City Pretzel Company. Amanda J. Cain photo

Tammy McKenzie, of York, spoke about her father through tears.

She said there were too many stories to count about her father.

"My dad is about being as he is — a free spirit," Tammy McKenzie said.

She said her father was illiterate, but that didn't stop him.

"Despite his illiteracy, he was a genius in many ways," she said.

Tammy McKenzie said her father was always working on and improving his car.

Chris Arndt, owner of Camera Center of York, knew McKenzie for nearly 30 years. They both owned Beetles, and that's what brought them together.

My Girlfriend's Wardrobe co-owner Deborah Daugherty, of Conewago Township, and daughter Shaeleigh, 16, look on as Tammy McKenzie, reads the eulogy during a memorial for local character Jerry McKenzie, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017, at the York City Pretzel Company. Amanda J. Cain photo

Arndt said he would help McKenzie purchase parts for his car, adding he made the purchases because of McKenzie's illiteracy.

He estimated McKenzie owned five Beetles in the nearly three decades he knew him.

Arndt called McKenzie a good friend, and said he had "a heart of gold."

"He was kind to everybody," Arndt said. "I thought I'd return the favor."

Neil Katz, owner of the building where McKenzie lived, drove up from Baltimore to talk about him.

"I wouldn't miss this for the world," he said.

Katz said McKenzie was always trying to help people in the building, and would never take payment for it.

"I think the word that describes him would be 'selfless,'" Katz said.

Daughters: Jerry McKenzie raised his two daughters, Tammy McKenzie and Linda Rolli, of Dover, by himself after fighting to get them back from the county when the child services agency said a man couldn’t raise two girls on his own, according to Tammy McKenzie.

“Although things were not always easy, he raised my sister and I to the best of his ability in an age where being a single father with two young girls was nearly unheard of,” she wrote in a tribute to her father.

Tammy McKenzie said she met one of the people who advised her father to give his daughters up for adoption and recalled her pride in being able to tell him that she “wouldn’t have traded him for the world.”

Rolli said during the memorial that she was thankful her father had so many people taking care of him in York City.

"I had no idea," she said of the impact he had on the community.

Tammy McKenzie shared similar thoughts.

"I'm kind of amazed by the support that this community has showed him," she said.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.