URBANA — On Valentine's Day last year, an artist friend of John and Mary Ellen Penicook's gave them a giant card with a drawing of the couple sitting atop the building then known as the Assembly Hall.
Only they weren't inside watching an Illini basketball game. No, this was actually on top of the building — on the roof — where they and some fellow co-eds had climbed using painters' scaffolding one summer night around dusk after an intramural softball game. It was 1980. The economy wasn't great at the time, Mary Ellen remembered, so a lot of students stayed in town that summer to take classes.
"It was beautiful. Beautiful scenery," said Mary Ellen, who'd been reluctant to share the story of their adventure with two children currently at the University of Illinois and a third in high school. "I don't know whose bright idea it was. I'm afraid of heights."
Not long after, campus security came along, shooed them down and gave them a scolding, she said. Soon after, John asked her out on a date.
"I was flabbergasted," she said. "He was fun. He was cute."
They both graduated the next year, and later, John proposed to her on the Quad. They were married on campus, at St. John's, when Mary Ellen was in law school. The couple eventually settled in La Grange, where they raised four children — one a UI graduate, two current students and the youngest a hopeful after high school.
That's partly the reason Mary Ellen and her children decided to donate $1 million toward the renovation of State Farm Center in memory of her husband, who died last March after battling a brain tumor.
On Friday, Valentine's Day, the UI announced that the new horseshoe drive on the west side of the arena will be named "John Penicook Drive."
"Well, anybody who knew him for more than five minutes knew he was a huge Illini fan, especially during basketball season," Mary Ellen said Friday. "He just loved basketball."
She said even the word "drive" is appropriate, because her husband was very driven, smart and a tireless worker. He picked up that work ethic while growing up on the family farm near Piper City, where he might have remained had his parents not advised him to try college.
Once at the UI, he excelled, graduating with two degrees — a BA in psychology and a BS in agricultural economics. He went on to earn a master's and eventually became a global investment banker.
Mary Ellen said walking up that drive will be a reminder to her family and others of her husband's drive for life, commitment to working hard and love for the Illini.
She said she's given a lot of thought lately to what he'd think of all this. The Penicooks have been season-ticket holders for basketball and football for as long as she can remember but stayed out of the spotlight.
"He would have never ever done it for himself, but if he had the opportunity, he would have done it for someone else," she said. "So I think that's why it's fitting. He was a very generous guy but usually gave anonymously, so I think it makes sense in the end."
Mary Ellen and her children will be recognized for their gift during tonight's Illini home game against Ohio State.
All these years later, she said she still hasn't really talked to her kids in detail about that first night high atop the arena.
"I've not really come clean about the whole story," Mary Ellen said with a laugh. "We kept it to ourselves until our friends spilled the beans."