Ted McKenney, who touched thousands in his role as pastor, executive director of Solid Rock Bible Camp and running coach, died Wednesday after a battle with an advanced, aggressive, inoperable brain cancer. He was 64.
Valerie McKenney, Ted’s wife of 42 years, said the outpouring of grief was vast. She said news of his death reached about 10,000 users on the Facebook page created to keep people updated on Ted’s battle with the cancer. Partly due to his work on the national board of the Christian Camp and Conferences Association until December 2019, response to the death came from around the nation and world.
“Whether it was coaching or out in camp, he invested his life in kids and touched so many lives,” said Ted Notter, who knew McKenney from both Solid Rock and attending Peninsula Bible Fellowship, where Ted was pastor. “He was a genuine person no matter who he was with. It just seemed like your relationship with him was always important to him.”
Ted was diagnosed with Stage 4, high-grade glioblastoma in his corpus callosum, which sits deep in the brain, in mid-March. April 21, he started treatment in a clinical trial in California, but treatment was not successful and he returned home May 28.
‘Made friends everywhere’
“We could not go out in the community without half a dozen people stopping and talking to Ted,” Valerie said. “So that means when you go out to dinner people would be stopping by the table all the time to chat — runners, runners’ parents, campers and campers’ parents.”
Valerie tells a story to illustrate just how popular her husband was.
Ted had been traveling for two weeks and had returned home. The couple made plans to celebrate with dinner and a hike.
First came dinner.
“I was there sitting at dinner and there he was talking to other people,” Valerie said. “I’m like, ‘Ted, this is just supposed to be you and me.’”
After dinner, the couple stopped at Fred Meyer to pick up some food for the hike. Still more people stopped to talk to Ted, but Valerie said she took solace in the fact that soon the couple would be on the Kenai River Trail by themselves.
“We got to the part with the overlook over the canyon with the bench,” Valerie said. “One of the ladies said to my husband, ‘Wasn’t I sitting with you on the airplane today?’
“That’s what it was like being with him. He made friends everywhere he went.”
Take someone like that and make them a pastor, or a coach, or an executive director at a summer camp, and they will touch a lot of lives. Take someone like that and make them all three and you get McKenney.
Valerie and Ted had four children — Carrie Setian, Crystal McKenney, Courtney Procter and Corin McKenney. He also had 13 grandchildren.
Valerie said Ted’s popularity could cause stress in their relationship.
“We worked things out on principle because our life’s goals were the same and often headed in the same direction,” she said. “If there were times I felt like he wasn’t giving me enough attention, we would work it out with our mutual goal in mind.”
Ted was born in North Platte, Nebraska, and grew up in Portland, Oregon. He came to Alaska in 1976 and worked in summer ministry at Solid Rock, which sits just east of Soldotna and provides Alaska youth outdoor experiences to encourage relationship with God through Jesus Christ. There he met Valerie.
Solid Rock’s first year of camp was 1958, overseen by directors Bert and Donna Schultz, who are Valerie’s aunt and uncle. Ted began working full-time at Solid Rock in 1981 and was executive director from 1996 to November 2019, when he retired. Valerie is still business manager at Solid Rock.
Drew Dickson, now on the full-time staff at Solid Rock, started coming to the camp with his family when he was 2. He said he viewed the McKenney family as a team.
“They had the same goal, to hopefully be able to share with people about Jesus,” Dickson said. “In that sense, that was their shared, ultimate goal because of their relationship with Jesus and how important he was in their life.”
Dickson, a star runner at Palmer High School who went on to run for the University of Alaska Anchorage, knew Ted as a coach and as camp executive director. He said there is little question about what was most important to Ted.
“If he could have a headliner, it’d be, ‘Investigate Jesus,’” Dickson said. “That would be his hope and plea, for people to consider who Jesus is.
“His faith was real. He was a man who walked by faith. That’s why so many felt that the kind of care and love from him was real.”
Notter agreed: “The main thing that always stood out to me was he lived his Christianity as a true person. He wasn’t phony about it or anything. It just always seemed to come through in everything he did.”
Valerie said Ted was never judgmental, never needed to prove himself right and was never out to make people feel guilty.
“He’d always find out where a person was and address them as a human being,” Valerie said. “If a person had a question or a problem, he’d encourage people. He was such a good encourager. You never had to be on the defensive with him.”
Dickson said Ted’s empathy and care for people meant he didn’t have to be pushy with his faith.
“He didn’t go around forcing things down people’s throat,” he said. “He had a way of getting to know people, and important things come up when you are really there for a person.
“The first answer he’s going to have about the deep things in life are going to come from the word and his faith.”
Caring for person, not performance
Valerie said Ted was a very good college runner until a collision with a drunk driver ended his career as a top-level athlete and gave him back problems throughout the rest of his life.
He channeled his love for running into coaching, where he coached at Cook Inlet Academy, then Skyview High School, then Soldotna High School, for 35 years.
Kent Peterson coached with McKenney at Skyview and then SoHi for about 10 years. He said McKenney had no problem recognizing his role was different at a public school than it was at a private school or Solid Rock.
“We had a lot of conversations and he was very accepting of anyone’s beliefs,” Peterson said. “He was very good at listening to and talking to people of any level of faith or doubt.”
Just as McKenney placed personal relationships at the center of his ministry, he placed them at the center of his coaching.
“He was more interested in the overall well-being of a kid, rather than just wanting a time out of somebody,” Dickson said. “He was able to try and meet kids where they’re at.
“If a lot of those kids on the team were treated like he wanted them to be state champs, they wouldn’t have stayed out. Kids know when you genuinely care about them and kids knew that about him.”
Runners from around the state would come to Solid Rock’s running camp during the summer.
“So he knew runners from across the state,” Peterson said. “Whenever we went to a race, he’d watch and coach our kids, but if there was another race, like the small schools, he was always out there encouraging those kids because he knew so many of them.”
Dickson said runners notice things like that.
“You watch him at a meet and he’s always made time for kids,” he said. “He didn’t just make time, he’d also make sure he went and encouraged them as well.”
Peterson said McKenney’s coaching was laced with life lessons, like the motto of, “If the body is challenged, it will respond,” relating to so many other things in life.
“Ted’s philosophy is he wanted kids to experience success and feel good about themselves,” Peterson said. “If they feel good about themselves, that will empower them as people.”
Peterson retired from coaching after the 2019 cross-country season and he said McKenney honored the retirement all season. Peterson said it’s tough to think back and realize that was McKenney’s last season as well, but he was not honored for it.
Priority on relationships
When Ted retired in November 2019, the plan was to be able to spend more time with Valerie. Valerie said the time since his diagnosis has been so hard that at this point she hasn’t processed much of it.
With Ted struggling so much in the final weeks, there are specific moments she cherishes.
“He managed before he died to communicate with each one of his grandchildren, even if it was just reaching out and giving them a hug,” Valerie said. “In the end, that’s all he could do.
“That was huge thing for me and the grandchildren.”
Dickson said McKenney is the second-most influential man is his life, after Dickson’s father. Dickson said McKenney’s influence will live on in the 850 to 1,000 kids that go through Solid Rock each year.
“Humans all have strengths and weaknesses,” Dickson said. “One of the biggest things he left was a priority on relationships. That’s certainly going to stay with a lot of us because he invested a lot in the staff that is currently here full-time.
“I think that legacy is still going to be living on a long time, we hope.”
A memorial service will be held for McKenney on Friday at 3 p.m. at Cook Inlet Academy. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to “Coach McKenney’s Running Team,” which provides running shoes for Alaska athletes in need and is administered by Solid Rock Ministries, Inc.