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Community Portrait: At 101, she’s witnessed a world of change

Community Portrait
By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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On a small street that bears her name just off Highway 49 sits a home with a rock foundation where Leah McKenzie lives. Seventy-five years ago McKenzie and her husband, Chester B. McKenzie, built their house with a clear view for miles, just a few structures dotting the nearby landscape. Slowly Auburn grew around the McKenzie home. In-N-Out Burger is a stone’s throw away. A 25-unit apartment building is her neighbor on the left and a vacant three-story office building borders her backyard on the other two sides. The young couple paid $4,000 to have their home built in 1938. Highway 40 ran through town and was a dirt road. Interstate 80 was not even an idea. Highway 49 traveled down what is now Nevada Street north, and Elm Avenue didn’t exist. “I remember watching cowboys herd cattle and sheep up the ravine,” McKenzie said. Born in 1909, McKenzie will turn 102 years old on March 24. The middle child of seven, McKenzie was born in Enid, Okla. and her family moved to California when she was 7. McKenzie moved to Auburn with her husband in 1931. Chester eventually got into the heating oil business and McKenzie worked at two drug stores in town. “There was no natural gas in town and everyone heated their homes and cooked with furnace oil,” McKenzie said. Her husband and his partner trucked the oil to homes and businesses in the Auburn area. “I worked for Douglas Drug and Martin Drug stores for 30 cents an hour when I started and a dollar an hour was the most I ever made,” she said. Both stores are now long gone but were located on Lincoln Way, in Downtown Auburn. William Taft was just elected president when McKenzie was born, cars and planes were a new mode of transportation, and horses and wagons were common. She remembers World War I when it was referred to as The Great War. She struggled through the Depression in Auburn. She remembers VJ Day in 1945 when Japan surrendered, ending WWII and being stuck working in Douglas Drugs when everyone was in town celebrating in the streets. “Fifty cents got you a haircut at a beauty parlor and you could also go to the movies at the State Theater for fifty cents,” McKenzie said. Baseball was big in Auburn. “My husband played baseball and everyone went to the baseball game on Sundays,” she said. She watched Neil Armstrong take his famous first step on the moon in 1969 while traveling to Yosemite with her husband. “I’m just lucky,” McKenzie, said trying to explain her longevity. “My mother lived to be 93, and my dad lived to be 72 years of age,” McKenzie said. “I didn’t drink much or smoke.” Of her six brothers and sisters, only her youngest sister survives. McKenzie, a sharp and spry woman, loves to chat, lives on her own, gets around great but can’t stand too long, cooks meals for herself and drove a car until she was 101 years old. “My driver’s license is still good for another two years, but I gave up driving because of a heart condition,” she said. Two years ago President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle sent her a letter commemorating her 100-year milestone, and family members threw McKenzie a 100-year birthday party with over 200 guests attending. Framed prominently on a wall in her living room is a beautiful pencil drawing of McKenzie in her 30s. Handwritten notes from guests wishing her a wonderful 100th birthday have created a lasting remembrance and tribute to a wonderful woman living a long, interesting and productive life.