Kay McKenzie, 85, fought to preserve Chattahoochee parkland in Atlanta

Kathering "Kay" McKenzie found a cause in preserving land that became the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
Kathering "Kay" McKenzie found a cause in preserving land that became the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.

Credit: courtesy of the family

Credit: courtesy of the family

Drop by a section of the 48-mile Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area on a nice weekend day and observe throngs of hikers, bikers, canoeists and fisherfolk, enjoying the green space.

Katherine “Kay” McKenzie, a formidable combination of grit and grace, incredibly organized and all-in on whatever cause she took up, played a key role in establishing that public amenity.

“She wasn’t afraid to take on new things,” said daughter Katherine Stegall. “She was really smart and believed in what she was involved in, and she didn’t let anybody stop her.”

McKenzie, 85, died Feb. 24 after a 10-year battle with muscular system atrophy. Survivors include children Katherine, Harold and Ansley; McKenzie’s three brothers, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Kay McKenzie

McKenzie’s passion and commitment came into play in 1971 as Georgia’s environmental movement flowered and she was asked to take the helm of the fledgling Friends of the River. The organization was the outgrowth of a Junior League service project and local environmentalists’ efforts to preserve riverside green space.

In addition to monitoring and dissuading development along the Chattahoochee, members pushed state politicians to pass the Metropolitan River Protection Act, seeking to set up regulations for a 2,000-foot-wide buffer along the river from Peachtree Creek in Atlanta upstream to Lake Lanier.

McKenzie swung into action to promote the plan under the Gold Dome, becoming a registered female lobbyist — a rarity. That didn’t sit well with some good-old-boy lawmakers.

“The attitude of some of my colleagues was ‘Little lady, why don’t you go home and cook dinner?’” recalled retired attorney and former state representative Elliott Levitas, who played a key role in passing the legislation. But McKenzie’s broad knowledge, persuasive skills, pleasant demeanor and political savvy helped her get taken seriously, he said.

Other lawmakers had earthier matters on their mind, prompting McKenzie to stop them with ’'Sir, you have a wife at home,” said Marcia Bansley, the former Executive Director of Trees Atlanta.

The proposal had failed in previous sessions when developers, property rights advocates and those fearful the Atlanta Regional Commission would use it to interfere with local land decisions lined up against it.

At one point during the 1973 session then-Lt. Governor Lester Maddox called a news conference to denounce the bill, called its supporters communists, then ostentatiously shoved the measure into a drawer and locked it.

In a 2016 interview for the Chattahoochee Parks Conservancy Oral History Project, McKenzie recalled the bill being killed by the House Rules committee the day before the end of the session. She headed to a dinner party at the Capitol City Club. But upon arriving, she “just lost it,” she said.

“It had been so emotionally intense, and I just went into the corner and I’m crying like I’m three years old,” she said. “Then I heard this voice say, ‘Honey, if you dry your tears and come eat your dinner, I’ll pass your bill for you tomorrow.’”

She looked up to see the state Speaker of the House, Rep. George L. Smith, with whom she had built a working relationship.

The bill was revived during an intense following day of political maneuvering and passed close to midnight. Then-Governor Jimmy Carter signed it minutes later.

McKenzie then joined another lobbying effort in 1978 — the push in the U.S. Congress to designate the land as the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, which passed and was signed by then-President Carter.

McKenzie set up a public relations firm in 1981, later selling it. She toiled for the political campaigns of Carter, John Lewis, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, even as some she knew looked askance at a white Buckhead activist supporting Black candidates.

“She got some pushback from her social circle,” said Stegall. Some thought she was stepping too far out of her role of Buckhead housewife and community volunteer. But Stegall added that her parents, while not liberal, believed in inclusivity.

Tapped again in the mid-1990s McKenzie took on marketing and communications work for the 1996 International Paralympic games in Atlanta.

Jean “Chatty” Stover, a longtime friend and fellow environmental activist, said McKenzie’s advancing age didn’t slow her drive to “see and understand a need. And she was creative enough to look beyond the immediacy of something to see the long-term benefits.”

In assisted living just months before McKenzie died, she lobbied for a memorial for former residents on what was poised to become a parking lot next to the care home, her daughter said. Then, she persuaded the owners to fund it.

“She didn’t see roadblocks,” said Stover. “She saw opportunities.”

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