Jo McKenzie

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McKenzie, Jo Jo McKenzie, 80, of Madison, CT, died peacefully at her home on Friday, April 27, 2012 surrounded by close family members. Her death came after several years of declining health. Born in Hartford, CT to Joseph and Gertrude (Cox) Perrier, Jo was loving wife, mother and aunt; a loyal friend and mentor; a renowned restaurateur, an activist, and leader within the Republican Party. It was from her mother that Jo first learned the lessons of hospitality, charity and civic responsibility. Jo was introduced to politics by her mother while they worked Raymond Baldwin's campaign for Governor and later Prescott Bush's (father of President George H.W. Bush) campaign for Senator, helping distribute campaign materials. She would eventually turn the family tradition of entertaining and the love of politics into shared career paths. Upon graduating from Briarcliff College in New York, Jo went to work for mentor Stanley Marcus at the Neiman-Marcus flagship store in Dallas, TX., where she learned "there were no hours" when it came to attaining perfection-a teaching that would later lead to her infamous 16-hour work days as a restaurateur and her meticulous attention to detail. She attributed other Marcus lessons, such as "mutual respect must exist between employer and employee," for setting the foundation for all her later achievements. After Neiman-Marcus, Jo returned to her Prospect Avenue home in Hartford to find herself reacquainted with the love of her life, Robert Henry McKenzie, whom she had first met when she was 13 years old and who had just returned from the Korean War. Robert and Jo soon married, settling in Wethersfield, CT and raising three daughters. Always restless, she continued to stay involved in politics and, fueled by her entrepreneurial passion, she created the famed Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton, CT in 1974, an award-winning trendsetter of fine dining and French cuisine. It was also during the 1970s that Jo became a rising figure within the Connecticut Republican Party, becoming the first woman in US history to chair a state finance committee in 1975, and later the first woman to chair the Connecticut GOP in 1979. A constant activist, Jo forged deep and longstanding relationships with countless members on both sides of the aisle and dedicated herself to the advance of many notable causes, especially in the Arts. She continued to break barriers for women in politics, serving as the first woman Sergeant At Arms at the 1996 Republican National Convention. As the Republican National Committeewoman for many years, and convention delegate throughout her life, Jo maintained an active role in shaping Republican politics. In 1986, Jo opened Robert Henry's in New Haven, CT which continued her legacy of top-rated, award-winning restaurants. Known as "Mrs. Mac" by her staff, Jo strongly believed that dining was like a theatre production and she dedicated herself to setting the perfect stage for delivering the most enjoyable experience to all her guests. Jo's passion as a restaurateur, entertainer and political activist culminated in her role as Senior Aide to Governor John G. Rowland and Executive Director of the Governor's Mansion. She was honored to serve the Governor and his wife Patricia, adoring them and their children as if they were extensions of her own family. Known to most in political circles as "Mama Jo"-a nickname she acquired in the 1990s from schoolchildren while on a trip to Taipei with the Republican National Committee-Jo was humbled and extremely grateful for all the recognition she received. She was especially honored to have been inducted as an "Honorary Member of the First Company Governor's Foot Guard with the rank of Captain." Jo McKenzie is survived by her three daughters: Robin Vuillermet and son-in-law, Jean-Pierre, Cheri McKenzie, and Tracey McKenzie; and many beloved nieces, nephews and cousins. She was predeceased by her husband of 41 years, Robert Henry McKenzie, and her sister, Lucille Bernice Crowdis. The family wishes to thank close family friend Daniel Moreland, and her longtime caregiver Maureen Frisbe for their love and care, and Connecticut Hospice of Branford, CT for the dignity they extended to her. A service, followed by her burial, will be held on Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 10:30 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church, 300 Main Street, Wethersfield, CT. Memorial gifts can be made to support the community outreach programs at either the Trinity Episcopal Church, 300 Main Street, Wethersfield, CT 06109 or The First Congregational Church, 26 Meeting House Lane, Madison, CT 06443; or to support girls and young women at risk at The Village, 1680 Albany Avenue, Hartford, CT 06105. The James T. Pratt Funeral Services of Wethersfield is assisting the family with arrangements.

Published in The New Haven Register on May 2, 2012