Couple sees 6th child graduate from university

Couple sees 6th child graduate from university

CHAMPAIGN – For the better part of two decades, the McKennas of rural Mason City have been regulars at the University of Illinois.

Much to the surprise of Phillip and Patricia McKenna, on Sunday, Chancellor Richard Herman publicly thanked them for the investment and sacrifice they have made in sending all six of their children to the UI at Urbana-Champaign.

Then he invited them and their baby, 22-year-old Mary, for brunch.

It was a nice gesture for the Central Illinois farmers who estimate their investment in their children has cost them in excess of $300,000, although they're not really sure. And they believe they have about 10 more years to go before all their loans are paid off.

"We didn't keep track. When they called and said they needed money, we sent it," Patricia McKenna said with a laugh.

Phillip McKenna added quickly that all his children worked while in school and took out their own loans as well.

The proud parents said they were shocked to learn that their daughter had written the chancellor asking him to publicly acknowledge them.

At the close of the 90-minute morning commencement, Herman noted the important role that parents play in the success of their children at college. He then read from Mary McKenna's letter to him.

"My graduation marks the end of 17 years of consecutive enrollment at Urbana-Champaign, a total of 26 years of higher education, nine majors, and more than $250,000 in tuition. With each year and with each child, my parents never wavered in their commitment to higher education. It was through their sacrifice and their support that Illinois became a part of the McKenna family.

"It hasn't always been easy. As small farmers in Central Illinois, my parents have weathered droughts and low crop yields time and again. Regardless, they never lost sight of giving their six children the tools they needed in life. College was a way to better one's self, to enrich one's mind, to foster one's infinite potential, they said.

"And so they sacrificed much so that we could have much, much more. In addition to the full-time load of farming, my mother took a job with the United States Postal Service; my father worked for the Illinois Air National Guard. With my parents' gift of higher education, my siblings and I can do anything."

And that they have.

Mary McKenna actually finished work on her degrees in Spanish, English and international studies in December but went through formal graduation ceremonies with her fellow English students on Saturday and the rest of the campus on Sunday morning.

Her oldest brother, Ben, started the Illinois tradition in 1990. A 1995 graduate with a degree in economics, he owns a business at the Chicago Board of Trade and employs more than a dozen people. Ben, 35, met his wife at the UI.

Mark, 34, graduated in 1997 with a degree in industrial design and owns his own design firm in New York City. Anne, 32, graduated in 1997 with a double major in anthropology and Spanish and is now a bilingual second-grade teacher in Evanston.

Tom, 30, is a grain merchandiser in the Asian markets based in Omaha, Neb. He graduated in 1999 with a degree in natural resources and environmental sciences and also met his wife at the UI. Kate, 26, graduated in 2002 with a journalism degree and is a copy editor for the Indianapolis Star.

Mary McKenna said she's waiting to hear on a job opportunity on the East Coast working on the election campaigns of progressive Democrats but has also applied to law school in Boston for the fall.

Since completing her studies in December, she's been visiting relatives and looking for jobs.

Her mother, who didn't attend college, said the thing she liked most about Illinois for her children was the opportunity for them to study abroad. All six did.

"We're from a small town. We wanted them to see a lot of the world," Patricia McKenna said.

The children have studied in Australia, England, Germany, Ireland, Puerto Rico and Spain.

Phillip McKenna, 64, now retired from the Air National Guard, joked that he got to go overseas after graduating from Southern Illinois University courtesy of the government, "carrying an M-16."

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