Sears, who was pastor to McKenzie and his wife, Rebecca, for about 10 years, said he had the “privilege of knowing Toby when he had nothing. He was throwing the Banner and I was throwing the Banner. We were friends then and it really showed his true colors when he became a businessman in the community because he put a lot of hard work into it to make it happen. He really achieved what he always wanted to do and that was to get beyond where he was raised.”
Sears said McKenzie’s desire was to show others how to get out of their own poverty and move forward.
“He lost everything and he still kept a good spirit even though he got depressed at times. He stayed true to what he’s always been, a businessman trying to help others,” Sears continued. “When he didn’t have anything to help anyone with, that’s one of the things that bothered him.”
Businessman Allan Jones and McKenzie were the same age and both competed in athletics and in business.
“He was a great competitor. We pioneered the payday loan industry together. I started Check Into Cash in 1993 and he started a year later,” Jones said. “Toby was also a great athlete. I played for Cleveland and he played for Bradley.
“I remember him winning the “Punt, Pass & Kick” contest at C.C. Card Auto Company, the local Ford dealer, when we were 12 years old. I once met him on the football field and he knocked me for a backflip with his forearm. To look at him back then you would not know it, but he was a tremendous athlete. He weighed about 250 pounds and I was 160.
“Toby was also a great giver,” Jones concluded. “He will be missed.”
McKenzie was forced into bankruptcy in November 2008, with ownership in more than 100 businesses and debt of about $150 million. He emerged from bankruptcy in August 2009 with only three failing bowling alleys.
Jones dubbed McKenzie as “The Phoenix” upon emergence from bankruptcy in a prediction that his competitor would rise from the ashes like the mythical bird.
Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said McKenzie was a great supporter of athletics in the community and on the college level at the University of Tennessee and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“He made a big difference in the lives of a lot of young people,” he said.
Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said, “Toby was a tremendous asset to Cleveland and Bradley County. He leaves behind a legacy of support for the community he loved. I remember his generous donation to fund the construction of the Walker Valley High School field house and many other school projects in Bradley County. My thoughts and prayers are with his entire family.”
Sears said, “I’ve heard people say he went from rags to riches and back to rags, but I see it a little differently. I see him going from rags to riches. I had the opportunity to pray with Toby and I believe he made a real commitment to Christ. When he left this world, he gained everything and then some. I will miss him as a friend and I am so thankful he’s not suffering anymore.”