John P. “Jack” MacKenzie calls his introduction to Park School in 1943 “inauspicious.” He was quite happy attending School 56 on Delavan Avenue in Buffalo, but circumstances changed for his family after his father passed away.
“My resourceful mother had converted my father’s slim death benefits into a discounted tuition for my older sister Bonnie’s senior year,” MacKenzie recalls. “My brother Warren,
entering seventh grade, and I, eighth grade, were thrown into the deal on full scholarships.”
The eighth grader soon came to love his new school.
“Once I got to Park it was so engaging, and the kids were so welcoming. I was very conscious that we were lower middle class economically. That wasn’t mentioned. The people were all full of this spirit of the School.”
After that year, MacKenzie changed schools again. His mother moved the family to Connecticut. He became homesick for Park, and in the summer after sophomore year he took a train back to Buffalo for a visit. M. Adolphus Cheek, the head of school, encouraged him to think about coming back to Park. Mr. Cheek sounded confident that he would be able to set up Jack with the same tuition scholarship he had enjoyed previously.
MacKenzie returned to Connecticut and discussed the idea with his mother for “several days and nights.” She relented, “heroically, under the circumstances,” and he packed his knapsack and made the first of many hitchhiking trips to Buffalo.
“I arrived downtown and called Dolph Cheek from a hotel. He said, ‘You didn’t get my telegram?’”
Mr. Cheek had sent word that he was unable to obtain the scholarship. Had MacKenzie received the telegram before he left home, his life might have unfolded quite differently. But here he was.
The head of school arranged for some parents and trustees to “pass the hat,” and they came up with an impromptu scholarship fund, keeping Jack at Park.
“Dolph Cheek was at the core of my love for Park. He had great belief in young people and their self-government. He drew an amazing faculty, who made financial sacrifices. Among the especially influential for me were Elizabeth Young (8th grade), Jeannette Cheek (history), Helga Doblin (music and languages), Tommy Van Arsdale (English), Lee Maggiore (Latin) and Herb Mols, who shared Dolph’s team play values.”
Mr. Cheek guided MacKenzie to Amherst College, where he graduated with honors in American Studies.
At Amherst, another fateful day came when the College sponsored an alumni panel discussion about careers. MacKenzie was particularly impressed by one of the panelists, Alfred Friendly, then a star reporter, later managing editor of the Washington Post. Friendly was also impressed by MacKenzie and the questions he asked that day, which MacKenzie said were persistent to the point of being bothersome. Friendly considered that a journalistic asset and told Jack to look him up if he ever got to Washington.
The day after graduation, MacKenzie hitchhiked to Washington, where Friendly put in a good word with the city editor, who hired him as a copy boy. In the fall, MacKenzie left for the Navy, serving three years as an officer on a destroyer escort. In 1956 he came back to the newspaper–still a copy boy–and worked up the ranks. In 1959 he married Amanda Fisk, Park ’53, whose father Bradley Fisk “I always thought had been one of the hat-passers, though I don’t recall asking him.” They had three “above average” children, and divorced in 1977.
In 1964 the Post sent MacKenzie to Harvard Law School for a year and assigned him to the Supreme Court beat. He was witness to rulings over the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the Miranda rights case, the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate tapes. After a decade on that “great beat,” MacKenzie moved to New York, where he eventually became an editorial writer at the New York Times, a job he held for 20 years.
MacKenzie is retired and living in an apartment in Long Island City, on the East River with a view of mid-Manhattan. He is a member of Park’s Board of Visitors and is a regular attendee at school reunions. He and some other members of the Class of ’48 decided “a number of reunions ago” to honor Mr. Cheek’s memory by establishing an M. Adolphus and Jeannette Cheek Scholarship at Park School. “The late Tom Whitehouse was a major driver” of the fund, MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie said Dolph Cheek and his wife, Jeannette, were inspirational to many Park students.
“She seemed to challenge the community’s view of the modern woman, though all she did was be professional and teach brilliantly. Dolph challenged the community–he was outspoken about loyalty purges and the internment of Japanese Americans,” MacKenzie recalled. “He hired a Japanese-American family to tend the grounds [at Park],” which MacKenzie called a gutsy move.
“Dolph, for me,” MacKenzie said, “was the special embodiment of the need to succeed with achievement, not personality.”