Shawn Finfrock

Shawn Finfrock always had a passion for reading.

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The shelves of books felt almost daunting to Diane Kiddoo.

Her best friend, Shawn Finfrock, had read so many books in her 49 years of life that they filled walls of her house. She devoured everything from fantasy to science fiction to religious history to cookbooks, and it simply didn’t seem right to Kiddoo to simply grab books and put them in storage.

Kiddoo flipped through the pages to find notes that her friend had written, many of which made no sense to her because her friend was so brilliant.

“It wasn’t like I could just go through and toss things in boxes,” Kiddoo said. “I just felt like her stuff, even though it’s only stuff, deserved (for me) to acknowledge her life.”

Ms. Finfrock was found in her home on July 27 by coworkers who were worried about her uncharacteristic absence from work. She had died of a heart attack. Her untimely death was a shock to friends and family.

Throughout her adult life, Ms. Finfrock read multiple books each week, including 656 in the last seven years, according to her account on goodreads.com. But she lived a full life outside the pages of those books.

Kiddoo met Ms. Finfrock over two decades ago through mutual friends when both worked at the University of Illinois. The two were magnetized to each other. Ms. Finfrock pushed Kiddoo, who described herself as suffering from an anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, to go out into the world.

“She was always the bold one,” Kiddoo said, “and she was always the person who got me out there, and she put me in situations that might’ve been a little uncomfortable, and she was kind of a driving force in my recovery from anxiety early on. It was incredible.”

Throughout her life, Ms. Finfrock searched for ways to help people and something to which she could dedicate her life, her father said.

Two years ago, she found a way to combine her love for reading and her desire to help others.

The nomination wasn’t supposed to be in memoriam or as a life remembrance.

When Dr. Amanda Gray, who runs Project READ out of Parkland College, put Ms. Finfrock’s name in for a prestigious award from the Illinois State Library honoring volunteer tutors early in the year, it was simply an obvious choice.

“She was one of the people where you could say, ‘We’re going to be short tomorrow at the Champaign library, can you show up?’” Gray said. “And she would. Or we would say, ‘At the Wesley Food Pantry, we need someone who can tutor in every subject in the evening,’ and she would come to that.”

When Ms. Finfrock found Project READ, it was as if she had found something she had searched for her entire life.

Even as a child, she was always intelligent and mature beyond her years. Carl Finfrock and his wife, Cheryl, who died seven years ago, adopted her at three days old. Over the years, Carl, who worked for wholesale grocery warehouse SuperValu, would hear constant compliments about his daughter.

“She would go along with me on my trips to the stores, and bakery and deli managers would comment how polite and adult my little daughter was,” her father said. “She was always such a nice, polite person. … She was just a joy to be around.”

After graduating from Centennial, Ms. Finfrock went to Illinois for a few years, where she studied architecture, her father said, but she eventually dropped out and worked for the university’s grounds department, maintaining plants in public areas. For the last eight years, she worked for Cozad Asset Management.

When she began volunteering for Project READ two-and-a-half years ago, she found her passion.

“I know for a fact that when she found that, she knew it was her calling,” Kiddoo said. “She talked to me about how she was so proud of that. She loved it. She absolutely loved doing that. She was so passionate when she would tell me about the things she was doing or a person she was working with.”

Not only did she tutor, she created a book club for adults to improve their literacy or their English. Most recently, she worked at the Parent and Family Learning Lab.

“We laugh during every session, and I can see his progress each week,” she wrote of one man she tutored after Gray nominated her for the Illinois State Library Award. “I feel very blessed to be able to work with him.”

Around two months after Ms. Finfrock’s death, Gray received word from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office that her friend was one of 10 winners of the statewide 2020 Spotlight on Service Literacy Award.

“On the one hand, I felt it was just such a beautiful thing that she got it, but she died really young, and nobody knew that anything was wrong,” Gray said. “It just made me feel like, ‘It’s such a loss,’ and I felt that loss so acutely because of the recognition for her contribution to our community.

“But at the same time, it felt like such a wonderful celebration. One more time, let’s celebrate Shawn again and a beautiful thing to be able to share with her dad and with all of the tutors and people that loved her.”

Normally, the secretary of state’s office would hold a ceremony to honor the award winners, but because of the pandemic, it won’t take place. Instead, Gray is looking to facilitate some sort of ceremony in the next few months to honor Ms. Finfrock. Carl Finfrock and Kiddoo will be in attendance.

When she found out about the award, Kiddoo broke down in tears.

She can envision her friend’s reaction to the award. Ms. Finfrock would have downplayed it, of course, but on the inside, she’d have been extremely proud.

“I was happy, and then I was heartbroken, because she didn’t know before she passed away,” Kiddoo said. “She’s going to leave a big hole with all of us. She was so bright. What a waste to lose her. She had so much to give.”

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