I sat at the WVU Coliseum at the press table area overlooking the gathered crowd which had assembled to watch a National Championship shooting match. Coming up the aisle toward me I caught a glimpse of a familiar figure.
Ginny Thrasher was coming up the aisle and her progress was notably slow. She was disappointed to not be preparing to shoot in the individual air rifle final. Her score fell just short of getting into the final and she had just received a standing ovation for her final match as a Mountaineer
Ginny stopped at almost every step to pose with a fan for a picture or sign an autograph. Her notoriety has become standard on the campus in Morgantown to West Virginia fans. When she was only feet away from me, a fellow tapped her on the shoulder.
“Ginny, I wanted to meet you, my name is Bill McKenzie, “I just want to thank you for all you have done fort he university.”
Thrasher’s reaction was swift.
“Holy cow, I should be thanking YOU!,” she told him.
The truth is, we should ALL be thanking McKenzie. Even though Ginny had never met Bill McKenzie, she knew his name well. He’s the one who provided funds to create the mobile West Virginia rifle range, now appropriately called “The Bill McKenzie Rifle Range.”
Shortly after his conversation with Ginny, Bill turned to me to talk about a Winchester rifle from the 1950’s. He was curious about an article which referenced the rifle in the Dominion Post and wanted to talk more about it since he owned one. I wasn’t the author of the article and had not read the story, so I wasn’t much help in his quest. However, we struck up a conversation and McKenzie is one heck of a good guy.
I noted when he introduced himself he was the one who paid for the range.
“Oh, I helped,” he said modestly.
I pressed further about how it all game together. He explained a few years ago when the rifle team won the National Championship the Mountaineer Athletic Club was seeking donations to by the team’s championship rings. McKenzie told them he would pay for all of them, and subsequently would pay for them every year they won the title.
“I didn’t realize it was going to be five straight years,” he laughed. “Jon (Hammond) told me last year when they didn’t win the title, ‘We saved you money on rings this year.’ But that’s not what its about.”
McKenzie asked Hammond what else he could do help support the team. As Bill tells the story, there was a suggestion during their conversation about possibly procuring a modern, mobile rifle range. McKenzie told WVU officials get him the information and he’d take a look. He shortchanged the story there.
“That’s pretty much how it happened,”
Although he had an outgoing personality, even I could tell talking about his own philanthropy made him uneasy…so I didn’t press further.
Like most Mountaineer fans, the only thing I new about Bill McKenzie was he beat Pitt by kicking the winning field goal in 1975. But after graduation he used the degree from WVU and became highly successful in the steel industry. He and his family lived in Parkersburg much of the year and did their winters in Arizona. He recently sold the Wood County home and has moved to Arizona permanently, but like so many, his heart remained in the mountains.
He’s been an active benefactor for the MAC for many years, but ironically really had no direct connection to the rifle program.
“I’m from West Virginia and we hunt and we shoot. Where the connection for rifle came from, I honestly don’t know.” he said. “It just seemed like an under appreciated team to have won, at the time 16 championships and now 19, and you see them on the back page of the paper.”
McKenzie’s contribution for the range has allowed a wider audience to watch the team and show their support. The mobile range is set up in the Shell Building during the regular season and was the catalyst for landing the NCAA Rifle Championships in Morgantown for the first time ever. A stage which drew the biggest crowd in history to watch a rifle match.
“Their popularity is great now. You see it on billboards, on the radio, on TV.,” said McKenzie. “I know they didn’t win, but this is great for the rifle team. I couldn’t be happier for them.”
McKenzie would never admit it, but his contribution of the range was a catalyst for much of the widespread exposure for the team and for that we all owe him a big thank-you for helping to popularize a shooting sport.