published Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Payday loan millionaire McKenzie dies at 59

A basketball arena at UTC was named for him. Millions of his dollars went to local schools, charities, ball fields and individuals.

Steve “Toby” McKenzie, a Cleveland, Tenn., native who grew up poor, built a fortune pioneering the national check cashing and pay-day loan industry in the early 1990s. He invested millions in more than a hundred businesses and real estate speculations and then lost almost everything during the economic recession.

More than a year before McKenzie died Thursday from unknown causes, he pleaded with his hometown to help him fight an involuntary bankruptcy that he said left him penniless, unable even to afford needed medications.

He was 59 years old when he died in a Chattanooga hospital. He is survived by his wife, Rebecca McKenzie, his three children and two stepdaughters.

“Toby left a legacy of generous support for the community he loved,” said D. Gary Davis, Bradley County mayor. “He was a big supporter of education. ... My thoughts and prayers are with his family. Toby will be missed.”

McKenzie’s fall from grace became a public saga.

In 2008, when his bankruptcy began, he was ordered by the court to make $11.5 million in lease payments on defaulted properties.

The next year he was at risk of losing his two homes, each worth more than half a million dollars, and his personal possessions were liquidated. In total, he owed more than $200 million to 40 creditors nationwide, records showed.

The University of Tennessee removed his name from an athletics building because he didn’t follow through with a financial pledge. His ex-wife, Brenda Lawson, paid a portion and the building was named for her instead.

Still, he fought creditors at every turn. He told reporters he had never done anything embarrassing or unjustified.

McKenzie sued a former business partner. His wife came to court and begged a judge for relief, saying the bankruptcy case had paralyzed them.

“When my husband was handing out money right and left, everyone was there, weren’t they?” a weeping Rebecca McKenzie said in Bankruptcy Court in the spring of 2010. “This man has literally donated millions to this community, but when he had such bad medical problems [after declaring bankruptcy], we couldn’t even get the trustee to help us pay his medical bills.”

In January 2012 a letter from McKenzie appeared in the Cleveland Daily Banner that asked for public support and prayer. He said he had made a legal request that everyone involved could come to an agreement or settlement.

He said he had no medical coverage and had been diagnosed with hepatic encephalopathy, a disease caused by liver failure that brings on confusion and comas. He said that without help he would die.

Nothing good had come from the bankruptcy case, he wrote, adding that it was continuing because of other people’s greed.

“When I say I want my life back, that means literally,” he wrote. “They have left me with absolutely nothing.”

Finally, in March, the bankruptcy case was headed for an end with a global settlement, just a month before his death.

His family will receive friends from 5 to 8 p.m. on Saturday at Fike Funeral Home

A funeral service will be held on Sunday at Mount Olive Church of God in Cleveland, where he was a member.

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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